Two University of Zululand (UniZulu) female researchers are part of the international researchers that deciphered the six decades old mystery of the evolution of electron transfer proteins using ferredoxins. They are Ms Tiara Padayachee and Ms Nomfundo Nzuza both currently studying towards their masters’ degree.
They collaborated with a global team that comprises top and and accomplished researchers who come from the USA and Europe (Germany and Poland). According to the researchers, electron transfer proteins such as iron-sulfur cluster proteins are believed to have evolved early during chemical evolution. These are ancient proteins, having been initially identified in 1962, which are considered as living fossils and are also present in all living organisms.
This is because they are involved in fundamental metabolic processes such as photosynthesis, nitrogen fixation, and assimilation of hydrogen, nitrogen, and sulfur. But the mystery surrounding how these proteins passed from prokaryotic organisms such as archaea and bacteria to eukaryotic organisms such as animals, including humans and plants has not been solved to date.
Classification and nomenclature
For their part in helping to solve the mystery, Misses Padayachee and Nzuza came up with a subtype classification and nomenclature system of these iron-sulfur cluster proteins. This is based on the amino acid patterns (named as cysteine spacing signature) of iron-sulfur binding motif. This classification and nomenclature system enabled them to identify the electron transfer proteins that are passed from prokaryotes to eukaryotes including humans.
The nomenclature system is as follows: ferredoxins start with their Fe-S cluster type, followed by their subtype (ST) and then the numeral indicating its ST number in that type. Proteins grouped into a ST have the same characteristic spacing between the cysteine amino acids of the Fe-S cluster binding motif.
Supervising honours projects
Both Misses Padayachee and Nzuza equally contributed to the study as first authors. Described as highly dedicated, the pair has also recently submitted their master dissertation research articles. During their masters’ studies they individually supervised three honours projects as well. Their supervisor, Professor Khajamohidin Syed, praised their hard work and commitment saying he hopes that one day they will make a mark in scientific research and looks forward to mentoring them along the way. He also expressed a wish that students who are passionate for research should be encouraged to become future academics.
Advancement of scientific research
According to Prof Syed, the study in which Misses Padayachee and Nzuza are involved represents the advancement of scientific research in South Africa, especially bioinformatics research where African researchers are solving the unsolved scientific mysteries and setting the new rules.
Professor Syed acknowledged the support he received from his collaborators, namely, Prof David R Nelson from University of Tennessee, USA, Dr Wanping Chen from University of Göttingen, Germany and Dr Dominik Gront from University of Warsaw, Poland, this study would not have been possible. He also recognised National Research Foundation (NRF), South Africa and UniZulu for funding his research.
This work has been published in the prestigious journal Current Issues in Molecular Biology (https://www.mdpi.com/1467-3045/43/3/98). Professor Syed conceived and designed the study. He is the corresponding author of the article. Misses Padayachee and Nzuza and their international collaborators are currently working on developing an automated computer programme for classification and nomenclature of iron-sulfur cluster proteins.