Letting go of the 'aha' moment: A series of small steps to reach success

By Emily Leighton, MA'13

Matthew Berg, PhD Candidate in Biochemistry, doesn’t expect ‘aha’ moments. At least not in the lab.

“There’s no one result or experiment that makes or breaks my work,” he explained. “It’s definitely a journey.”

Berg is focused on the mechanisms regulating gene expression. Using yeast models, he is looking at transfer ribonucleic acid (tRNA) biology, mistranslation and the evolution of the genetic code with supervisor Chris Brandl, PhD.

tRNAs are a type of RNA adapter molecule that translate genetic information into proteins – a molecular ‘bridge’ between an mRNA codon and the amino acid it codes for. When tRNAs mistranslate genetic information, errors in protein synthesis occur.

During their investigations, members of the Brandl Lab stumbled upon a suppressor tRNA in yeast that misreads the genetic code and translated a dysfunctional mutant protein into a functional one.

“This leads us to ask, if yeast is doing this, what other organisms do the same thing?” said Berg.

Humans have 610 tRNA genes, meaning there is a lot of room for variation. Berg and his colleagues have sequenced tRNA genes from a group of individuals and are now exploring this variation. “We’ve started to see that some of this variation has the potential to lead to a misreading of the genetic code in humans, which we think has implications in disease,” he explained.

The research team is focusing on diseases that are characterized by misfolded proteins, such as neurodegenerative or cardiac diseases. tRNA mistranslation may contribute to disease by accelerating the onset or severity of symptoms.

It’s a new frontier in the field of gene expression. “We’re on the forefront of this research,” said Berg. “There is exciting potential for human health.”

Born and raised in Oakville, Ontario, Berg completed his undergraduate degree in medical sciences at Western with an honours specialization in biochemistry and cell biology.

It was a third-year mini-thesis project in Brandl’s lab that sparked his interest in research. “Like most students, I was on the fence about medical school or pursuing something else,” he said. “I fell in love with research after that semester and knew I wanted to pursue it further.”

The 26-year-old relishes the quiet, personal moments of discovery. “For those few seconds, when I complete an experiment and find a result, I’m the only person in the world who knows that result,” he said.

A recipient of the prestigious NSERC Canada Graduate Scholarship for doctoral students, Berg attributes his success to his mentors and collaborators. “I’ve been so lucky, from my early research experiences as an undergraduate student to my current collaborations.”

He recently helped launch the Biochemistry Student Council to bring trainees in the Department together. “It’s hard to go through graduate school alone,” he said. “It can be isolating and sometimes it feels like you’re the only one that struggles. It’s important to know others share this experience and can help support you.”

Outside the lab, Berg enjoys rock climbing. It’s an activity he says shares similar elements to research and helps motivate him when he feels stuck in the lab.

“In climbing, you need to work step-by-step to reach the top. There’s no way to conquer the whole route at once,” he said.