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International collaboration heats up antifreeze research

Peter Davies (left) is working with Craig Marshall from the University of Otago, New Zealand to improve the production of natural antifreeze proteins.
Peter Davies (left) is working with Craig Marshall from the University of Otago, New Zealand to improve the production of natural antifreeze proteins.

High up on the sixth floor of Botterell Hall, a glass flask is spinning in a bath of thick green liquid. Inside the flask is Professor Peter Davies’ (Biochemistry & Biology) attempt to solve one of nature’s riddles: how can plants, fish and insects live in sub-zero temperatures without freezing? He’s made some promising strides recently, and he chalks it up to the help he’s had from overseas. Dr. Davies has been working with a colleague at the University of Otago in New Zealand, and recently travelled there to collaborate on research. Together, he and Dr. Craig Marshall have been studying antifreeze proteins, which occur naturally in certain organisms that live in freezing climates. It’s thought that by binding to the surface of ice crystals, these proteins lower their freezing point, effectively staving off the formation of ice.

After working for months at Otago, Dr. Davies returned to Queen’s to continue the project. Dr. Marshall joined him shortly thereafter and they’re continuing their work together.

“The exchange has been enormously beneficial and has given me access to equipment and experts I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” says Dr. Davies. “It’s allowed Dr. Marshall and me to start work, and then continue it back here at Queen’s.”

Though both professors knew one another’s work and had met at conferences, it was their universities’ membership with the Matariki Network of Universities (MNU) that brought them together. Queen’s and the University of Otago are two founding members of the MNU, an international group of leading research-intensive universities that promotes exchanges and collaborations between member institutions. That shared membership has now helped them collaborate on their research on antifreeze proteins.

Drs. Davies and Marshall are hoping to find a way to collect and purify antifreeze proteins in greater amounts, which stands as one of the material’s biggest challenges.

“Before we’re able to effectively use these proteins, we need to develop a better supply,” says Dr. Davies.

Read the full story in the Queen’s Gazette.