Fellowship winner: Ringwood East resident Hernan Alonso in the laboratory at Monash University in Clayton.
Picture: Rob Carew
ON any given day, Ringwood East resident Hernan Alonso is usually busy in the lab, peering through the microscopes.
At the end of the year, his microscope lens will focus on a strain of bacteria that is set to benefit the Australian environment.
The research fellow at the microbiology department at Monash University campus in Clayton is one of 22 Victorians awarded a 2012 Churchill Fellowship. It gives him the opportunity to study a specific research project overseas, then share newfound knowledge throughout Australia.
He will spend one month in Japan studying the structure of an oil-degrading protein using cryo-electron microscopy. “My study deals with bacteria that can grow in oil-contaminated environments. Basically, oil spills as a result of human activity,” he said.
Dr Alonso’s research will specifically try to understand how the enzyme proteins inside oil-degrading bacteria can be used to clean up oil spills with cleaner strategies.
“I’m trying to understand how these bacteria degrade and then use oil to find eco-friendly ways to clean up these oil spills.”
Most oil spills at present are tackled with oil dispersants that do not completely remove the oil from the environment. “To understand how this protein works, we need to look at its shape or structure.”
The oil-degrading protein lives in a particular membrane environment in the bacteria, which needs to be preserved to keep it active.
But there are only a few groups in the world able to study the structure of membrane proteins and Japan is a pioneer in developing this technology.
Dr Alonso will learn how to use the equipment and machinery and is looking forward to the trip, although he is slightly nervous. “Lots of time is spent troubleshooting and getting things to work.”
Besides collating data and results, Dr Alonso is keen on learning how to use the equipment and sharing new technical expertise and skills with other Australian researchers.
To study these proteins, Monash University in Clayton is building an experimental centre with the requisite machinery. Dr Alonso expects it to be ready at the end of the year.
“Hopefully, when the new centre is set up, we’ll be able to conduct these experiments in-house.”
This story was written for the Monash Weekly newspaper in July 2012 during an internship.