Travis DeWolfeTravis DeWolfe represented the University of Windsor in the provincial Three Minute Thesis competition.

UWindsor researcher battling superbugs with supercomputers

Travis DeWolfe is using computer simulations to investigate ways to outsmart antibiotic resistant superbugs. A master’s candidate in chemistry and biochemistry, he is studying two enzymes that trigger or accelerate specific chemical reactions in bacteria.

“Antibiotics are designed to disrupt key processes that keep bacteria alive, like a poison for bacteria, and I’m researching two enzymes, glucosamine 6-p synthase and beta lactamase, which are both involved in bacteria's cell walls,” says DeWolfe. “The first enzyme is directly involved in the creation of bacteria cell walls while beta lactamase is directly responsible for destroying our powerful antibiotics before they can even work.”

DeWolfe says enzymatic reactions are incredibly fast and difficult to capture in lab-based experiments, but by simulating the reactions with a high-performance supercomputer, he is able to capture specific moments and get a more in-depth look.

Working in professor James Gauld’s lab, DeWolfe uses complex algorithms to simulate behaviour using a technique recognized in 2013 with a Nobel Prize. He is studying how a particular strain of beta lactamase is able to break down a class of antibiotics. Specifically, he is studying which inhibitors can be used to stop beta lactamase in its tracks, allowing antibiotics to do their job.

“I'm able to virtually shrink myself down to the size of an atom and look inside the very active site of these enzymes as I maneuver my way through the reaction looking for the exact pathway these enzymes take,” he says.

“By looking at all the possible pathways and successfully identifying how these enzymes behave, while also exploring how one of them can be rendered inactive, we can use this information to create the perfect weapon, the unbeatable antibiotic that can defeat bacterias that are a threat to human health and perhaps through the use of supercomputers we may find superbugs’ kryptonite.”

DeWolfe won first place at UWindsor’s 2017 Three Minute Thesis competition; a video of the finalists is available on the UWindsor 3MT website. Though he did not place in the provincials, DeWolfe says it was an amazing experience to compete at that level among such impressive researchers.

“The Three Minute Thesis helps people communicate complicated research in plain language,” he says. “I try to avoid using jargon as much as possible because I want to have conversations about my research with everyone, including people with no background in my field, so I can get their unique opinions and perspective.”