McMaster scientist’s research on antibacterial toxins brings prestigious award to Hamilton

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Published February 16, 2024 at 2:40 pm

Dr. John Whitney McMaster
Dr. John Whitney has been awarded the Melanie O’Neill Award for "significant contributions to biological chemistry."

A McMaster University scientist’s research into the “molecular mechanisms of antibacterial toxins” has received a prestigious New Investigator award from the Canadian Society for Chemistry.

Dr. John Whitney leads a microbiology lab as part of the University’s Department of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences and is a member of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research.

He’s been honoured with the Society for Chemistry’s 2024 Melanie O’Neill Award for making “significant contributions to biological chemistry or biophysical methods during the early phases of their research career.”

“This CSC award is a recognition of the importance of studying molecular structures and how they teach us new ways to kill bacteria,” He said via the university.

“It is humbling to have our work acknowledged by the CSC, and I am grateful to the hardworking trainees in my group who conducted the research that led to this recognition.”

Just last month, Whitney and his team published their research into a so-called “bacteria barcode,” which bacteria use to “figuratively scan genetic codes to learn which proteins to keep and which proteins to expel into the environment.”

For this research, the team wanted to find out how three different proteins came from the same bacterial system, “There were no known similarities between the toxins — they don’t look anything alike, and they don’t do anything similar,” Whitney explained, “Our rationale was, for them to all pass through the same protein secretion machine, there must be something common between them.”

The Canadian Society for Chemistry described the work.

“Whitney’s lab uses molecular approaches to gain a mechanistic understanding of how antibacterial toxins are secreted from bacteria, how they enter target bacterial cells, and how they exert their bactericidal effects,” they wrote in the award announcement.

Whitney received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Guelph and his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Toronto. After a fellowship at the University of Washington, he opened his McMaster lab in 2017.

He has since received several awards for his work, including the Canadian Society for Molecular Biosciences New Investigator Award, the ACS Infectious Diseases Young Investigator Award, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s Investigators in the Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease Award in 2021, and the Canadian Society of Microbiologists’ ThermoFisher Award in 2020.

The latest award is named after acclaimed British Columbia chemistry researcher Melanie O’Neill, who was murdered in her home in 2011. The award has been granted since 2017.

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