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NCASD, Martin Labs Apply Network Analysis and Molecular Modeling to Chitinases

Published on March 20, 2017 by

Chitin, the polysaccharide-based material from which insects make their exoskeletons, is tough stuff – and digesting it is a tall order, especially for a plant.  Nevertheless, some carnivorous plants, like the Cape Sundew, Drosera Capensis, are able to do just that.  In a recent paper in Biochemica et Biophysica Acta, NCASD Lab PI Butts and members of the Martin Lab model the structures of 11 novel chitinases from D. Capensis, whose genome was published as part of the same collaborative effort this past year.  Applying a combination of bioinformatics, molecular modeling, and techniques adapted from social network analysis, the team was able to predict the three-dimensional structure of each enzyme and gain insights into potential functional differences.  Among the discoveries is a novel chitinase with two active domains that closely resembles a protein seen in microorganisms, but never before found in plants.  These new enzymes can do more than bite bugs: chitin is also the essential component of fungal cell walls, and these molecules may hold promise for combating fungal growth on food or even fungal infections in humans.  This work demonstrates the potential for fusing computational and data analytic techniques with biological know-how to quickly move from genomic “source code” to potentially valuable biomolecules.

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