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University of Guelph. (3/8/06). "Press Release: People. Weighing Up Proteins [Dyanne Brewer, Manager of the Biological Mass Spectrometry Facility (BMSF)] (by Andrew Vowles)".

Region Region Guelph, ON
  Country Canada
Organisations Organisation University of Guelph, Biological Mass Spectrometry Facility (BMSF)
  Group University of Guelph
  Organisation 2 University of Western Ontario
Products Product mass spectrometry services (MS services)
  Product 2 proteomics
Persons Person Brewer, Dyanne (Univ Guelph 2002–200603– Manager Biological Mass Spec Facility before Univ of Western Ontario)
  Person 2 Lam, Joe (Univ Guelph 200603 Professor Molecular and Cellular Biology)

Dyanne Brewer works with proteins and weights. But don't look for her in a food science or nutritional sciences lab - and don't look for any ordinary set of scales. As an expert in analyzing and identifying proteins, she uses sophisticated instruments to help scientists across campus with varied research projects, from investigating components in wine to studying compounds produced by animals under stress.

Brewer is manager of the Biological Mass Spectrometry Facility (BMSF) located on the ground floor of the science complex. Her lab is among a handful of suites here - and planned for the second phase of the building - whose research instruments make up U of G's Advanced Analysis Centre.

The Human Genome Project has made a media darling out of genomics, the study of the genetic blueprint. But on one level, the genetic code is only an assembly manual for the numerous workaday proteins that run all living things, says Brewer.

"The things that act are the proteins," she says, explaining that she came to Guelph specifically to help scientists pursue proteomics research.

Understanding a protein's action starts with learning how it looks, including identifying the protein and its constituent peptides - chains of amino acids encoded by those glamour genes. And protein identification is the raison d'être of the BMSF and the instrument occupying a prominent corner of that science complex lab.

The MALDI-TOF mass spectrometer is basically a fancy set of scales designed for figuring out the weight of various biomolecules. (Technically, the instrument measures not mass alone but mass-to-charge ratios of ions, a distinction that might mean little to the average person but is critical for a researcher - or a student: "That's always an exam question," says Brewer.)

Her lab serves researchers in the College of Biological Science, the Ontario Veterinary College, the Ontario Agricultural College and the College of Physical and Engineering Science, including:

– pathobiology researchers comparing diseased and normal animal tissue or studying stress response in animal herds;
– geneticists investigating myxoma virus particles as well as genes and proteins that help plants use nitrogen in fertilizers; and
– food scientists looking at anthocyanins in wine and juices.

In the lab, Brewer mixes protein samples into an organic substance, then spots them onto a metal plate that holds an array of almost 400 samples at a time. Shining a laser on the plate turns the sample into a charged gas, which is propelled through a vacuum tube at high speed toward a detector. Lighter ions fly faster than heavier ones: hence the "-TOF" suffix, which means "time of flight" (the rest of the acronym means "matrix-assisted laser desorption ionization").

Based on a telltale spectrum of peaks and valleys graphed onto the machine's computer screen, she then consults a number of public databases to determine what's in the sample.
The technique allows scientists to identify unknown compounds, quantify known compounds and provide information about the structure and chemical properties of molecules, according to the website of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry.

Elsewhere, spectrometry is used in anything from detecting the use of steroids in athletes to determining the composition of molecules found in space.

With such small amounts of protein, sample contamination is the biggest potential peril. "The most commonly identified protein from mass spectrometry is human keratin," says Brewer, referring to skin and hair proteins shed by lab handlers. She recalls working at another university lab where analysis kept turning up hits for sheep keratin. "It turned out the person who was doing it was wearing a wool sweater."

In the BMSF, samples are prepared in fume hoods following protocols. Much of the sample preparation is done by research associate Armen Charch, a PhD graduate in plant agriculture, and Mufaddal Girnary, a work-study undergraduate student.

Brewer learned mass spectrometry at the University of Western Ontario, where she worked in an analytical lab for two years before coming to U of G in 2002. Referring to Guelph's mix of biological, physical, veterinary and agricultural sciences, she says: "I saw an opportunity to work in areas I didn't know about and to facilitate their research. I know about mass spectrometry and biochemistry."

She has trained about 50 researchers across campus in preparing samples for mass spectrometry and has co-authored seven papers.

"She has a very solid and broad background in spectrometry, with specific training in peptides and proteins," says Prof. Joe Lam, Molecular and Cellular Biology. "We were very fortunate to have been able to recruit her."

A bioanalytical chemist, Brewer studied at the University of New Brunswick in her home province before completing a PhD on saliva peptides at the University of Waterloo. "My primary interest was forensics before it was sexy, before CSI."

Biology appears to decree chemistry in her family. Her father taught chemistry at UNB. Her sister, also a UNB chemistry grad, is on faculty at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia. Brewer's husband, an organic chemist, now works for a chemical company, and his brother is also a chemist. "It's a bit freakish," she says.

Record changed: 2016-03-19


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