UWM physics researchers collaborate with new Nobel laureate in chemistry

A group of UWM physicists has done collaborative research with one of the newly named Nobel laureates in chemistry, Columbia University’s Joachim Frank.

Frank, along with Jacques Dubochet and Richard Henderson, won the prize for their development of cryo-electron microscopy, a method of imaging that renders detailed 3-D pictures of the smallest units of life, such as viruses and molecules inside a human cell.

Scientists stand in a hallway.
Researchers in the UWM lab of Abbas Ourmazd (left), distinguished professors of physics, have worked with new Nobel laureate of chemistry Joachim Frank, contributing mathematical techniques to help extract information from pictures obtained by the electron microscopy.

The Ourmazd lab, which includes Associate Professor Peter Schwander and Senior Scientist Russell Fung, has helped researchers at Frank’s lab by contributing mathematical techniques to help extract information from pictures obtained by the electron microscopy.

“We have developed a whole new way of determining the function of biomolecules responsible for keeping us alive,” said Abbas Ourmazd, distinguished professors of physics. “Simply put, we have developed a way to make 3-D movies of these ‘bio-machines’ as they perform their functions.”

He said Frank approached him and suggested the joint research after hearing Ourmazd present at a Gordon Research Conference in Italy in 2010.

The research resulted in a joint paper in 2014, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in which the scientists were imaging protein-related biomolecules.

That paper was cited in the document “Background on the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2017” on the website of the Nobel Prize, along with a recent joint paper, published this year in the journal bioRxiv.

Frank spoke about the partnership in a recent interview with the German newspaper Westfalenpost.

“I have a very interesting collaboration with a group in Wisconsin led by Abbas Ourmazd with the goal of analyzing thousands of molecular images undergoing continuous movements,” he was quoted as saying. “I believe this will lead cryo-EM to full ‘four-dimensional’ structure determination.”

Other researchers in the Ourmazd lab who were on one or both of the papers are Ali Dashti, Ghoncheh Mashayekhi and Ahmad Hosseinizadeh.

Ourmazd’s lab recently reconstructed a 3-D movie of a virus preparing to infect a cell from a multitude of 2-D “snapshots” taken by the X-ray free electron laser (XFEL) at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

This is the second physics research group at UWM that has a research link to 2017 Nobel Prize winners. On Oct. 3, the Nobel in physics went to three pioneers of the LIGO equipment, which made possible the discovery of gravitational waves. A group of four faculty and 26 researchers at UWM are among the 1,000 authors of the paper that described the discovery.

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