ARCHIVED - NRC Holmes Award Winner Dives into the Molecular Mysteries of Water

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December 05, 2005— Ottawa, Ontario

Water drop

It forms approximately sixty percent of our bodies. Our cells are literally bathed in it. In spite of our dependence on water, we still don't understand why water behaves as it does. Dr. Michael Cowan, this year's NRC H.L. Holmes Award winner, plans to figure out how water works at the atomic level, particularly within biological systems.

"The hydrogen bonds between water molecules are very important for life because they're intimately related to how proteins work and proteins are life, basically," said Dr. Michael Cowan, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto.

Dr. Michael Cowan, winner of the 2005 NRC Holmes Award.
Dr. Michael Cowan, winner of the 2005 NRC Holmes Award.

Dr. Cowan was awarded NRC's $200,000 Holmes Award on October 13 at the International Conference on Multiphoton Processes in Orford, Quebec. The award will fund two years of collaborative research at the University of Toronto and the Max Born Institute in Berlin, Germany.

"It's an amazing award and it will let me work here with some amazing people on important problems," said Cowan. "It's also quite a prestigious award."

This year's Holmes Award recipient, received his B.Sc. in Physics and a Ph.D. from the University of Manitoba, where he used ultrasonic techniques to investigate wave and particle dynamics. He then won an NSERC post-doctoral fellowship to work with Dr. R.J.D. Miller at the University of Toronto's Departments of Physics and Chemistry.

This March, Dr. Cowan's letter to the journal Nature entitled: "Ultrafast memory loss and energy redistribution in the hydrogen bond network of liquid H2O"1, was published. Dr. Cowan won the Holmes Award to extend this research into biological systems.

Dr. Mark Bisby, Vice-President, Research Portfolio of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and a member of the Holmes Award Selection Committee, was struck by Dr. Cowan's investigation of something which most of us take for granted.

"I think his application impressed all the judges because he was investigating such a fundamental property of biological systems that it is almost forgotten, and the potential impact of his work is correspondingly enormous," said Bisby. "The phrase "paradigm shift" is nowadays over-used, but not at all an exaggeration in describing what Michael's work might accomplish."

Dr. R.H.L. Holmes was a scientist who spent most of his career in Alberta investigating the effects of chemicals on biological systems. Dr. Holmes bequeathed his estate to the NRC upon his death. The resulting Holmes Award gives Canada's most promising new scientists the opportunity to conduct world-class research.

"I am attempting to offer Canadians the best research training and experience in the world." Dr. R.H.L. Holmes, April 12, 1984.

Dr. Holmes' legacy continues to support scientists in better understanding the chemistry and physics of biological systems. Dr. Cowan's work lies at the intersection of these three disciplines.

Up to now, Dr. Cowan has focused on studying the attraction between neighbouring molecules in pure water. Using multidimensional IR spectroscopy to set up ultra-fast vibrations in pure water allowed Cowan to study the correlations between adjacent water molecules. He discovered that water molecules are fickle neighbors.

"In pure water the molecules get randomized on time scales that are at least an order of magnitude faster than for any other liquid" said Dr. Cowan.

It is essential to understand how water molecules get along with one another because water saturates and surrounds the proteins within our cells.

"This has profound implications for how protein molecules work inside water," said Cowan. "The fact that there isn't any persistent structure in water may let the biomolecule very quickly and stably get into its proper state."

NRC Holmes Award Past Recipients and Background Information

In 2003, Dr. Alison Allan of the University of Western Ontario won the NRC Holmes Award to conduct breast cancer research.


The 1997 Holmes Award winner, Dr. Suzanne Demczuk of the University of Montreal, studied microdeletions in chromosome 22 that cause heart problems, facial defects, abnormal blood calcium levels and increased susceptibility to infection in children.


Dr. Carol Dallaire of the University of Texas was the first Holmes Award winner in 1994. Dr. Dallaire worked at the NRC Steacie Institute of Molecular Sciences on anti-cancer and biomimetic materials projects.


"The work I will be doing for the Holmes Award will be looking at water in the cellular environment," said Dr. Cowan. "The cytoplasm inside of cells is very densely packed with ions, proteins and other small molecules so the properties [of cytoplasmic water] may be different from those of pure water."

This work is important to biological science in general because most experiments involving proteins are conducted in aqueous, or water-based, solutions. Knowing how the molecular motions of water affect protein behaviour helps us to better understand how proteins work within cells as well as within test tubes.

The NRC Holmes Award will allow Dr. Cowan to continue his collaborative work with Dr. Dwayne Miller at the University of Toronto and the Max Born Institute over the next two years.

"I will likely stay in this field," said Cowan. "I am quite interested in biophysics – it's the physics of how life works."

Dr. Cowan's Research

Dr. Dwayne Miller, Professor of Chemistry and Physics at the University of Toronto and Dr. Cowan's post-doctoral supervisor, explains how Dr. Cowan's work sheds light on the relationship between water and biological molecules:

"Water is the most ubiquitous liquid on the planet. Developing a microscopic understanding of liquid water is arguably one of the most long-standing problems in science. It has been recognized for nearly a century that the special properties of water are directly related to the hydrogen bond network connecting water molecules.

Until Michael Cowan's work, in collaboration with our colleagues at the Max Born in Berlin, no one had been able to measure the dynamics and correlations that the hydrogen bonded network imposed on the structure of liquid water. It was only through the development of nanofluidics and the application of a new form of multidimensional IR spectroscopy that Michael was able to directly determine this relationship.

What he uncovered was amazing. We found that the correlations between water molecules, or the memory of neighbouring waters molecules' positions and effect on the microscopic environment, was lost in less than 50 femtoseconds (50 1/billionths of a 1/millionth of a second). Therefore, everything in water appears to happen nearly 100 times faster than what anyone could have inferred about water from studies of model systems.

Michael Cowan's Holmes Award recognizes this accomplishment. Dr. Cowan will now aim his multidimensional microscope directly inside cells to understand the true conditions of 'living' water. It is in this environment that water hydration layers lead to the molecular self-assembly of the apparatus for life. If there is anything we have learned about water, it is that the answers to questions about the dynamic structure of water inside cells are sure to surprise us."

To be eligible for the NRC Holmes Award, research projects in chemistry, physics, biology or mathematics must contribute to advancing medicine or biology. Winning applicants are selected on the basis of their research track record, their promise as assessed by their scientific colleagues and the quality and significance of their research proposal.

1 M.L. Cowan, B.D. Bruner, N. Huse, J.R. Dwyer, B. Chugh, E.T.J. Nibbering, T. Elsaesser & R.J.D. Miller, "Ultrafast memory loss and energy redistribution in the hydrogen bond network of liquid H2O", Nature 434, 199 (2005).

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