Randy Parker.

Industrial chemical reactions are often not amenable to biological catalysis by enzymes owing to the distinctly non-biological temperatures, pHs and solvents that are often required for these reactions to occur. Life, however, has proven more adaptable than previously thought. A continually increasing number of organisms have been discovered that grow near the boiling point of water, under very high or low acidity and in industrial waste sites containing solvents and metals that would ordinarily be toxic to most known forms of life. The enzymes produced by these so-called ‘extremophiles’ are of great interest from an industrial application as they may be usable under conditions previously thought unsuitable for biological catalysis.

My research focuses on understanding how these enzymes are able to operate under extreme conditions and apply the knowledge gained to engineering existing enzymes to improve their stability. I have chosen to focus on a class of enzymes known as cellulases, which catalyze the hydrolysis of cellulose. Cellulose is produced by plants and is the most abundant biopolymer on earth and represents a great resource for producing renewable liquid fuels. The first step in the process of converting cellulose to fuel is the hydrolysis of cellulose to glucose. Great efforts have gone into making this step more efficient but the most common enzymes used are still derived from a tropical fungus and the enzymes generally operate optimally around 60°C. Previous work in our lab has identified an archaeal cellulase that operates at greater than 100°C from organisms growing in volcanic hotsprings. I am focused on understanding the structural basis through which these novel cellulases are able to be active under these conditions and to apply this knowledge to existing enzymes.

Hobbies: Hiking, Spelunking, SCUBA diving, General bad-assery