A University of Dundee graduate has discovered key information that will help scientists better understand the virus responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic. Conchita Fraguas Bringas’ has had her research into SARS-CoV-2 published in the journal Access Microbiology, a rare achievement for an undergraduate. Remarkably, Conchita’s computer-based bioinformatics project was undertaken while under the strict Spanish lockdown and while she was completing the final exams of her Biological Sciences degree. The 22-year-old worked together with her advisor of studies, Dr David Booth , a senior lecturer within the University’s School of Life Sciences, to complete the paper.
The project focused on describing a SARS-like coronavirus that shares similarities with SARS-CoV-2 in the way that an important protein works. This protein, named the Spike, is currently a focus for vaccine design as it plays a crucial role in Covid-19 transmission. The Spike protein is found on SARS-CoV-2 particles and acts as a ‘key’ that can be recognised by the body’s immune system. The Dundee research used computer programs to observe the ‘lock and key’ mechanism found between the ACE2 receptor and the COVID-19 Spike protein that allows the virus to enter human cells. Conchita modelled the unknown structure of the receptor binding domain of the SARS-like coronavirus, shedding light on critical spike-receptor interactions. She hopes that the research will be explored further with laboratory study.
“Since the first reports of the novel coronavirus I started researching the latest scientific literature in my own time,” said Conchita. “In March, I flew back home to be with my family and spent two months in one of the harshest worldwide lockdowns, where the Spanish population suffered a great loss and had leading number of cases at the time. During this time, I kept researching whilst preparing for my final degree exams, and I felt that if I had the chance to help out in any way, I would try to do so. I was well-versed in bioinformatics as I had completed my thesis using online tools, and was lucky to have access to them from back home.
“I eventually drafted a manuscript and, with the help and support of Dr Booth, prepared the submission. I have learned so much about the publishing process and I have had a great experience working with the journal team of Access Microbiology. My time at Dundee has allowed me to grow both as a person and a scientist and acquire the skills needed to navigate the scientific field. From early on I was exposed to great resources and shown how to use them, or given the opportunity to do extra-learning that went beyond the classroom.”
Dr Booth said, “I thought Conchita’s instincts were on point, as she correctly asserted that in the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak no vaccine was produced even though there is a suite of research exploring the molecular mechanisms of the viral infection. Interestingly this is her first foray into the world of academic publishing, which happened while she was working towards her finals for her undergraduate degree. To have a young scientist contribute to the body of knowledge with a timely and contemporary piece of work in this way, whilst also experiencing the review process, is a fantastic thing.”
Conchita graduated this year with First Class Honours in Biological Sciences BSc (Hons) and is starting her PhD at the University of Copenhagen.
The paper is now available in Access Microbiology.
The University of Dundee has launched a public Coronavirus Research Fundraising Campaign to provide flexible funding urgently needed to advance similar emerging research.