Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Adam Cowden

"In the MSc year (1+3) I completed two projects on the isolation of natural products: firstly, carbohydrates from wood and plant material and secondly, a family of molecules called mycosporine-like amino acids that were extracted from marine algae; these MAAs appear to function as nature's very own sunscreen. I chose to continue the latter project into a PhD, focussing on mycosporine-like amino acids from red seaweed and cyanobacteria, synthesising molecules with similar properties and attempting to unravel their unique photodynamics with ultrafast laser spectroscopy."

MSc Mini-Project 1 (May-June 2019): Enzymatic Degradation Products of Lignin by FT-ICR Mass Spectrometry

Lignin chemical structure superimposed on natural lignin sources

A selection of the major chemical linkages found in the natural biopolymer, lignin, superimposed on three natural sources including wood lamella and Alfalfa.

The aim of the first project in my MSc year was to evaluate whether biotransformations can be detected via ultrahigh resolution mass spectrometry (FT-ICR MS). To do this I investigated the microbial conversion of the lignin residue extracted from plant cells. The oxidative depolymerisation of lignocellulosic biomass is thought to offer the best renewable feedstock for aromatic carbon molecules and is the only real alternative to oil refining for some high value chemicals. Lignin extracts were incubated with five known bacterial lignocellulose-active enzymes and low molecular weight aromatic products were observed by reverse phase liquid chromatography (RP-HPLC). The final report concluded that direct infusion FT-ICR MS in negative ion detection mode is a suitable technique to monitor intermediate, oligomeric products formed during lignin enzymatic breakdown. The identification of degradation products from the transformation of polymeric lignin and an understanding the substrate specificity of particular enzymes will help to decipher the metabolic pathways for microbial lignin breakdown, improve our knowledge of the enzymology of native lignin metabolism and inform biocatalytic lignin valorisation strategies.

Link to Bugg Group (PI: Prof. T. Bugg)

A graphical method for analysing the large data sets obtained from high resolution mass spectra. A detailed section is chosen that demonstrates chemical changes to the lignin following enzymatic digestion
(Left) Van Krevelen diagram of GreenValue® lignin extracts after three different enzymatic digests. (Middle) Detail comparing the control (without enzyme, in orange) with the digest (with a two-enzyme combination, in purple). (Right) Annotated van Krevelen diagram generated from a generic organosolv lignin preparation control. Annotations are the transformation in chemical space that links the identified compounds and assignments are confirmed by extrapolating to the intercept with either axis.
MSc Mini-Project 2 (July-September 2019): Mycosporines: Microbial Sunscreens

A selection of mycosporine derivatives that have been found in marine species

A selection of mycosporine derivatives that have been found in marine species (including marine algae and cyanobacteria)

I am currently investigating mycosporines and their mycosporine-like amino acid derivatives, MAAs. These are a family of structurally and chemically related compounds that absorb radiation from the solar ultraviolet radiation (UVR) spectrum and exhibit fast relaxation dynamics without losing UV absorbing power in vitro. The pair of conformational isomers, usujirene and palythene, are algal imino-mycosporines with optical density maxima at wavelengths 357 and 360 nm respectively; which are useful parameters for UVA absorbers. Computational studies using time-dependent density functional theory (TD-DFT) have predicted that these potential sunscreen molecules can interconvert rapidly following excitation, perhaps explaining the very efficient non-radiative dispersion of excited state energy.

In addition, a cluster of four genes (Ava_3855-3858) has been identified in cyanobacteria that encodes the enzymes that can convert sedoheptulose-7-phosphate (7-SHP) to the di-substituted imino-MAA, shinorine. We aim to extract and purify these and other molecules of interest from species of seaweed, like Palmaria palmata, and/or from genetically transformed E. coli cultures using chromatographic methods. This study will also provide synthetic precursors for the the chemo-enzymatic synthesis under investigation by the Corre Group in the School of Life Sciences (SLS, Warwick) with an aim to produce promising UV filters.

Eventually we hope to be able to produce a wide range of synthetic analogues with adjusted properties in collaboration with the Wills Group in the School of Chemistry, also at Warwick. All of the syntheses are accompanied by expertise in time-resolved ultrafast laser spectroscopy at the Warwick Centre for Ultrafast Spectroscopy (WCUS) to monitor the events in the excited state following UV irradiation. With a resolution of around 20 femtoseconds we can begin to monitor directly for the first time the super fast photodynamics of these molecules.

Link to Stavros Group (PI: Prof. Vas Stavros)

Link to Corre Group site (PI: Dr. Christophe Corre)

Link to Wills Group site (PI: Prof. Martin Wills)

Gene cluster and biosynthetic pathway to some MAAs, steady-state photostability studies and UV spectra obtained of the first synthetic analogue made in the lab

(Left) Genes and enzymes of the biosynthetic pathway to some MAAs (Bottom right) steady-state photo-stability studies using, and (Top right) UV spectra obtained of the first synthetic analogue made in the lab
Previous experience:

MChemX (Hons) from the University of Edinburgh (Sep 2013- July 2018)

I completed my undergraduate Masters in Chemistry with a Year Abroad at Edinburgh University. My final year courses included: Properties and Reactions of Matter, Bio-macromolecules, Advanced Organic Synthesis, Chemical Medicine, and Techniques and Concepts in Inorganic Chemistry. Key modules and skills that have aided my current research: pericyclic reactions, organometallic compounds, solid-phase peptide synthesis, carbon-ligand multi-bonding, small molecule activation, natural product synthesis, metals in medicine, protein-protein interactions, molecular magnetism, reaction dynamics and cyclic voltammetry. While my degree equipped me for a range of paths my major interest going forward is in synthetic organic chemistry.

The scope of my final-year Honours project (2017/18) was to improve the synthesis of key monomers with amine (Troeger's Base-type) linkers. Previous reaction schemes relied on time-consuming separations and produced the monomer in poor yield. The polymeric product of the scheme has been proposed as a permeable and selective membrane for gas separation and/or storage material that was able to exceed the then current state-of-the-art Robeson limit (2008).

Research placement (Year 4), the University of Bologna, Italy:

I undertook research at the Department of Chemistry "Giacomo Ciamician", leading to a publication in open-access journal Biomimetics of a paper entitled "The Antioxidant Activity of Quercetin in Water Solution". The antioxidant activity of naturally occurring quercetin was investigated by combining differential oxygen-uptake kinetic measurements and B3LYP/6311+g (d,p) calculations. The results helped to rationalise quercetin’s reactivity with peroxyl radicals and its importance as a nutritional antioxidant in vivo and for biomimetic applications. Link to paper: Biomimetics 2017, 2(3), 9; https://doi.org/10.3390/biomimetics2030009