School Research

Research in Focus


Beck and Blanksby

Dynamic duo of the Biomolecular Mass Spectrometry Lab

and definitely not a B Team



Who are you?

Together the Beck and Blanksby groups are a major force in the Biomolecular Mass Spectrometry Laboratory (BMSL). Other research groups within the Chemistry Department (Ralph, Price, Dillon) also have researchers that use the mass spectrometry facilities as a major part of their research activities.

What are you researching?

The Beck group investigates molecular interactions among drugs (e.g. anticancer agents) and DNA, and also among the multiprotein complex called the E. coli replisome (with Prof. Nick Dixon). This is the molecular machine that is responsible for replicating, the molecular genetic blue-print, DNA. Recently, with Dr S. Whitney (ANU) we have commenced investigations of another molecular machine: the interactions between the enzyme RuBISCO and RuBISCO activase.


Research in the Blanksby group is focussed in two main areas, namely, gas phase free radical reactions and the identification and quantification of lipids (fats) in biological systems. In both areas we use mass spectrometers to observe changes in molecular structure or composition. We are also working with BlueScope Steel to improve the formulation of COLORBOND® to make your roof look better for longer!

Why is it important?

These projects are important in a fundamental sense since they help us to understand the mechanism of molecular events that direct all the functions of our cells. On a practical note, an understanding of these interactions may lead to new ideas for antibiotics (novel ways to interrupt bacterial DNA replication) or to new drugs that interact with the DNA in rapidly dividing cancer cells.



Free radical reactions are important in understanding processes as diverse as the diseases of ageing, atmospheric chemistry and combustion. Some free radicals are so reactive that isolating them in the gas phase inside the mass spectrometer is the only way to directly probe their reactivity. Detecting changes in the lipid profile of biological samples can give a key insight into how molecular changes are involved (either as a cause or an effect) of diseases (e.g., cataract and presbyopia).



What are your latest achievements?

Recently we have observed complexes of RuBISCO activase, and the most abundant enzyme on earth (RuBISCO). This activation enables RuBISCO to fix carbon dioxide in photosynthesis. Using the mass spectrometers in the BMSL we have also observed complexes of the activase with sugar phosphates revealing important information about how the activation of photosynthetic enzymes occurs.



We have recently demonstrated that peroxyl radicals – a particularly important but highly reactive free radical – can be isolated and studied in our ion-trap mass spectrometer. We have also shown that unsaturated lipids can be identified through reaction with ozone – inside the mass spectrometer! In a new collaboration with Prof Roger Truscott from Sydney University we have found pronounced changes in the membrane lipid composition of the Human lens, which appears to be associated with cataract. This may provide new insights into the mechanisms of this pathology.

Who funds your work?

The Australian Research Council and the Institute for Biomolecular Science at the University of Wollongong.


The Australian Research Council, Astra Zeneca (Pharmaceutical Company) and Bluescope Steel.

What is the most memorable event in the last three years?

When we first discovered that the free radicals we had isolated in the ion-trap mass spectrometer were reacting with oxygen from the air to form peroxyl radicals there was a lot of celebration in the lab….and a few beers afterwards outside the lab.

The opening of the new facility was also very exciting as it expanded and strengthened our research capabilities.

ARC CEO opens new Mass Spectrometry Facility June 05

What's next?

We are now moving towards combining two of our major research interests to investigate how lipids can be modified by reaction with free radicals. This is a very exciting new direction and has important implications for understanding how how biological membranes respond to free radical attack.

Contact details

Dr Jenny Beck

Dr Stephen Blanksby


Biomolecular Mass Spectrometry Lab