26 January 2017

A pioneer in uncovering the human body’s smallest building blocks

Research profile

Guillermo Montoya has dedicated his life to finding out how the smallest building blocks of our body interact with each other. His interest in the scientific world was peaked early on by an 80’s scientific series, and it has only grown stronger since then.

As research director at Center of Protein Research (CPR) Guillermo Montoya spends his days obtaining crystals and looking into a microscope trying to map out how the tiniest parts of the body are organized. The final results of his work are colourful geometric 3D-images that provide information on how the molecules in our cells work.

The information that Guillermo Montoya and his group gather creates the basis for drug development, improvements of industrial products and may even be a very important step in bioengineering – designing living organisms.

University of Copenhagen just received a DKK 60 million grant from Novo Nordisk Foundation to buy a high tech electron microscope, which will allow Guillermo Montoya and others to do more advanced and effective research. The microscope is going to be anchored at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research and the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences.

What do you do?

I work in the interface between biology, physics and chemistry. Our main interest is to see how molecules work in cells, and for that, we use techniques such as x-ray crystallography or cryo-electron microscopy. What we are trying to see is how the atoms that compose the molecules are organized, so we can understand how they work when they perform one of the chemical reactions that happen inside the cells of our body. The information we get can be used for many things; for example, it makes it easier to improve and develop drugs.

We can compare the cells to tiny machines. To understand how a machine works, you have to take it apart. You have to divide it into pieces to understand how each piece works inside the machine. What we do is similar: we dismount the cells and isolate the molecules. Once we get the molecules isolated, we can use x-rays or electron beams to produce a physical phenomenon that will show us pictures of the constellation at the atomic levels. Then we can see how the atomics are organized, and by looking at them, we can figure out how they might work. In some cases, you can even see that engineers imitated solutions on mechanisms that we see in the molecules of the cell.

Why is your research important?

Life is a mixture between chemistry and physics. Therefore, if you understand at the molecular level how the mechanisms work, you can “repair” ore “redesign” things if there are any problems. For example, you can look for molecules that can block a reaction you do not want. This is very important for the development of drugs or antibiotics. Today, we have a huge problem, because people have been consuming so many antibiotics so there is quite a lot of resistance. By knowing the structure of the molecules, you are able to design new antibiotics that are able to target and kill bacteria.
Another example of why this field is important is redesign of organisms. Mankind has been making genetic improvements for ages by breeding. If you have a cow that produces a lot of milk, that is the cow you choose for breeding. It is genetic selection, and if you always choose the best cow, you are slowly redesigning the organisms of cows. By understanding how the molecules work, we can design tools that can help us accelerate this redesign of organisms by modifying their genomes. 

University of Copenhagen just received a DKK 60 million grant for a cryo-electron microscope. How will this microscope help your research?

It is a big advancement. This electron microscope is extremely sensitive and is able to capture details, which are not visible when using other microscopes. Today we have to crystalize molecules in order to see the structure, but with the new microscope, crystalizing is not necessary. That is a huge help, because crystalizing is a very tricky process that often goes wrong, so the cryo-electron microscope not only speeds up the process but also provides us with better results. Ultimately, the microscope will help us create a better basis for drug development and industrial product improvements.

Why did you choose this path?

When I was young, I used to watch a TV series about astrophysics called Cosmos. I have always been interested in science, and the series was definitely a great source of inspiration. I could not choose between biology and physics, so I ended up choosing physical chemistry with a twist of biology to get a little bit of both worlds. 

What is the best part about your job?

When I am trying to solve a pattern and map out a structure. It is just like a quiz. Sometimes it is easy, sometimes it takes 4-5 years. I still remember the first time I solved a crystal structure. It was an amazing feeling when I went from calculating numbers to finally having an electron density map where you could actually see how the atoms of the molecule were organized. It’s a very rewarding field, because you end up with a visual.”

What do you do when you are not at work?

I spend my times with my friends and family, and I really like watching movies. Godfather is my favorite one, but I cannot decide if the first or the second movie is the best. I also really like football, and here in Denmark there is so much of it! You can sit down on Friday and then sit there until Sunday and there will always be a game on.

Read more about the grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation here.