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Biology’s Dean Fraga one of three authors of Protein Science’s 2021 Best Paper award

Dean Fraga, left, of The College of Wooster, and Wayne Patrick of Victoria University in Wellington New Zealand

Dean Fraga, the Danforth Professor of Biology, is one of three authors of a paper awarded a 2021 Best Paper award by the journal Protein Science.

The paper, Quantifying the Taxonomic Bias in Enzymology, was based on work Fraga started in New Zealand with Chelsea Vickers and Wayne Patrick of Victoria University of Wellington during the height of the pandemic lockdown period in 2020. Fraga was on research leave in New Zealand at the time but unable to access lab facilities because of COVID closures.

What might have otherwise been idle time turned out to be a time in which Fraga and his research colleagues could ponder bigger research questions together. Their award-winning research paper examines the gaps of the Braunschweig Enzyme Database (BRENDA), an online information system used globally by enzymologists and research scientists working with enzymes.

Fraga’s career has been spent studying evolutionary biochemistry, also called molecular evolution. The study of enzymes and their structure and function is fundamental to his work and the work of other biochemists. The BRENDA online tool is a trusted resource, but as Fraga, Vickers, and Patrick learned in their study, BRENDA only catalogs a narrow and biased fraction of known enzymes. As scientists have achieved a more comprehensive understanding of the diversity of enzymes using deep sequencing, it has become clear that we have only learned about a small portion of the Earth’s available enzymes.

The paper’s purpose was not to criticize BRENDA, but to show the vastness of the work ahead, and how the field has nearly unlimited opportunities to explore new enzyme structures and activities.

While the research paper was not at all what Fraga traveled to New Zealand to do (his work was supposed to be centered on crystallography), he said the work shows the creative thinking that grew out of scientists trying to make the best of an unlucky situation. Vickers, the junior member of the three-person research team, received the financial award that came with the prize.

“It shows that no matter how bleak the situation, there are always opportunities to be discovered if you are willing to think differently,” Fraga said. “Because we were forced to think differently about our work, we used the tools with which we still had access to explore our research topic in a way we might not have if things had been uninterrupted by the pandemic.”

Photo: Dean Fraga, Danforth Professor of Biology at The College of Wooster, with Wayne Patrick, associate professor of biochemistry at Victoria University of Wellington, pictured in New Zealand. Fraga and Patrick are co-authors, with Chelsea Vickers, of Quantifying the Taxonomic Bias in Enzymology, which was awarded a Best Paper award by the journal Protein Science.

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