By Dr Harley Worthy, Research Associate at University of Exeter
After nearly 820 days since my last in person meeting, interacting with the scientific community through the lens of my laptop webcam via Zoom and Microsoft Teams, I was able to attend a workshop in person. Finally, I was able to leave the scenery of rural Devon and head Northwards to Aston University in Birmingham for the 3rd UK Workshop on membrane proteins. The main focus of the workshop, to walk attendees through the process of working with membrane proteins. From expression, membrane solubilisation and purification through to characterisation and onwards to structural studies.
It wouldn’t be a journey on British rail without a tale of woe, and my journey was no different, but this is not the place for that tale. All that is important, is that I arrived safely to catch the first session. The 3 three lectures, two by Dr Andrew Quigley on strategies for high throughput membrane protein expression and membrane protein expression. These bookended a fascinating talk by Dr Vincent Postis discussing the considerations of differing strategies for membrane solubilisation through detergents, SMALPs, and amphipols amongst others.
After the first session the ensuing coffee break was a chance to interact with the other delegates, representing all aspects of research, from seasoned PI’s, interested in potential new collaborators, to undergraduate students exploring the idea of entering the world of scientific research, to representatives from biotech companies wishing to sell their wares and services. As well as interacting with the many new faces present, I also had the pleasure of reuniting with a few old ones, including a former undergraduate student I supervised during my PhD.
Once everyone was suitably caffeinated, we headed to one of the University’s teaching labs to begin the first of two practical sessions (one of the pleasant differences to a regular conference). Stood at the bench, reagents prepared and portioned, and all equipment placed ready in a tray, it was hard not to be reminded of the happy memories of practical sessions during my undergraduate degree. The practical saw us pair off and attempt to solubilise some previously overexpressed membrane protein into one of the SMALP samples kindly donated by workshop sponsor Orbiscope. Once solubilised we began to purify our proteins by mixing with a nickel-NTA slurry overnight.
After the practical session and a brief talk/sales pitch on the benefits of the relatively new technique of mass photometry. We headed to the Aston University conference centre for a few networking drinks. A much-missed social breakout from the main formal conference/workshop format that was so hard to replicate during the pandemic, allowing people to discuss research topics, ideas and troubleshoot with experts in a more comfortable informal setting. I myself gained a few tricks of the trade that I’m keen to employ in my research over the coming weeks and months.
The second day began a series of talks discussing techniques for discerning the structural characteristics of membrane proteins. First, Prof Bonnie Wallace discussed the use of CD for membrane proteins and the pit falls to avoid when interoperating the data. There was a second talk by Dr Isabel Moraes about crystallography of membrane proteins discussing the pros and cons of techniques such as lipidic cubic phase and highlighting the importance of choosing the correct concentration columns.
After a brief coffee break, we returned to the teaching laboratory finish off purifying our proteins and check our samples by SDS-PAGE. As the gels were running, we had lunch where we discussed many important topics such as the correct way to make a tuna sandwich (personally I prefer black pepper and lemon juice with red onion). We briefly returned to the lab to put the gels into staining solution before returning to the lecture theatre.
Due to some unfortunate circumstances, we were unable to kick off the post lunch session with the advertised talk on single particle EM. Instead, Dr Alan Goddard presented an overview on the applications of single molecule fluorescence and how this can be used to study protein-protein interactions and help elucidate structural information. The second talk slot was then used as a general Q&A discussion where delegates were encouraged to discuss their issues and solutions for working with membrane proteins.
After a second coffee break and a chance to view our gels (shamefully I broke mine whilst taking a photo), the second day was rounded off with a talk on using mass spectrometry for lipidomics by Dr Corinne Spickett who also offered tours of the facilities at Aston University before we all went off the get ready for a wonderful conference dinner at Gusto Italian. A note of thanks here to our wonderful hosts at Aston for showing us their local haunts before and after the meal.
Despite some of us not making it to bed until the small hours of the morning, we began the final day of the workshop in good spirits as we were treated to lectures on molecular dynamics, NMR, and neutron reflectometry of membranes. After this long session many of us including myself, said our farewells to friends old and new, whilst others took a moment to prepare for the SMALPs conference that was due to start that afternoon.
As alluded to earlier, the highlights of the workshop for me, were the chance to interact with fellow scientists in person once again and actually getting a chance to practice some of these techniques as we were being told about them. This was one of the best experiences I’ve had during my career in science so far.
To enable me to experience this I have to thank the Biochemical Society for providing me the funding to facilitate my travel to the workshop. I’d also like to thank them for giving me the opportunity to write this blog post. If anyone is reading this and wondering if they should attend such an event in future? Simply, yes, I promise you will not regret it.
Picture from the conference dinner taken by @FranThomas17 (sorry I don’t really do photography)
Dr Harley Worthy received a General Travel Grant from the Biochemical Society to support his attendance at this workshop. View more details about the scheme, and how you could apply for up to £750 on our website