Exciting, daunting and intense: the conferences at which scientific communities convene are fabulous opportunities for newcomers. For Marcin Makowski, whose PhD research focuses on peptides, the chance to attend a congress in 2019 has led to a lasting collaboration.
“The conference I went to is Europe’s leading event in biophysics,” explains Marcin Makowski of molecular medicine institute iMM João Lobo Antunes in Lisbon. “It was an unparalleled opportunity to meet outstanding researchers in my field, show my work and gain new ideas.”
Makowski’s research is inspired by a looming public health emergency: the growing number of bacterial strains that are resistant to current antibiotics.
“I am studying a group of molecules called antimicrobial peptides,” he says. “These peptides have antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral activities. Basically, they destroy the cell barriers of bacteria.”
Makowski benefited from a grant for his participation in the conference’s 2019 edition in Madrid, a joint event of the European Biophysical Societies’ Association (EBSA) and the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP). This support was awarded by COST Action MOBIEU (‘Between atom and cell: integrating molecular biophysics approaches for biology and healthcare’).
MOBIEU fosters networking, synergies and clustering in biophysics research at the molecular scale. “This is the tiniest level of study in biology,” Makowski explains. “It examines how molecules interact and how these interactions shape life – for example, how drugs interact with cells.”
The event in Madrid was an opportunity to interact with researchers whose work he had admired from afar, gain inspiration and generally connect. It is not uncommon for PhD students to feel that they are working in isolation, Makowski points out, and a chance to experience the community in action helps restore a sense of collective momentum.
Makowski approached a number of speakers and participants, asking them to look at the work he was presenting in the poster session. Most did, engaging in a fruitful exchange that lasted nearly five hours, he recalls.
According to Makowski, one of these encounters – with two researchers from a team whose techniques seemed “almost like science fiction” – has developed into an ongoing collaboration. “They suggested experiments that I could do to strengthen my work hypothesis, and kindly invited me to their lab for a few months to perform some of those experiements.”
The team studies the biophysics of the energetic membranes that compose the mitochondrion, which is often referred to as the cell’s powerhouse, Makowski explains. “I think my peptide may hamper the activity of key proteins in the bacterial analogues of mitochondrial membranes.”
This mechanism would starve the targeted bacteria of the energy they need to live, he notes. “I wanted to check if this is indeed the case,” he says, commenting on the progress of the experiments as of December 2019 – during his stay at the lab, where the scope for a long-term collaboration was also being discussed. “So far, it does seem to be, which is very, very exciting.”
Unlocking the power of peptides
At present, there are hardly any peptide-based antimicrobials on the market – notably because, as yet, peptides are harder and more expensive to produce than smaller molecules, Makowski notes.
However, this is about to change. “I foresee a success story in 5 or 10 years,” says Makowski, who intends to contribute to this development. New types of drugs are needed urgently to defuse the ticking time bomb of antimicrobial resistance – and if the prospective Dr Makowski’s research helps shape them, COST’s conference grants will clearly have played a part.
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