At a Glance

SupportersGovernment of British Columbia
Biophysics; biochemistry and molecular biology; structural biology; genetics; neuroscience; basic medicine, including pathology, pharmacology and toxicology; analytic and organic chemistry; optics

How does life originate and what are the processes that make life possible?

CIFAR’s program in Molecular Architecture of Life is untangling the details of the complex molecular processes that underlie all living systems, with implications for everything from our understanding of evolution to our ability to treat disease.

How does life originate? The question predates Darwin, and science still does not have a complete answer. Until now we have only been able to understand the processes of life as static structures of life’s building blocks. Yet life is dynamic, and processes are in constant states of change across varying scales of size and time. Only recently have new tools such as ultrafast imaging become available that can record molecules in motion and give scientists the ability to observe living systems.

This CIFAR program unites researchers working at the cutting edge of molecular science to shape a new understanding of life’s complex processes of self-organization, repair and reproduction.

Our unique approach

New imaging methods combined with unique expertise make it possible for the first time to examine molecular processes at a level of detail that will lead to a coherent picture of how molecular assembly can give rise to living systems.

The questions require chemists, physicists, biologists and others who will examine everything from the movement of individual atoms to the processes of entire groups of cells. By creating the opportunity for deep collaborations, the CIFAR program will explain the molecular origins of life and open new paths to better drug design and other technologies with implications for human health.

Why this matters

Although we have made tremendous progress in understanding genetic coding and protein synthesis and function, many of the most important underlying processes remain to be discovered. Understanding levels of biological function from the movement of a single atom within a molecule in a quadrillionth of a second to the much slower processes of cell growth and regulation will allow researchers to manipulate them and lead to new strategies to fight disease.

Structural biology and spectroscopic work by Eric Xu (Van Andel Institute, USA), program Co-Director Oliver Ernst, and others using femtosecond X-ray free electron laser and EPR spectroscopy revelead the overall architecture of the rhodopsin–arrestin assembly, which is important in the function of vision (Kang et al., 2015).

In depth

Science is at a turning point. Until recently there has been no way to connect the vastly different length and timescales of biochemical functions that differ from one another by many orders of magnitude. Now, new technologies like ultrabright electron and x-ray sources can light up atomic motions and allow direct observation of molecular processes. Major advances in super-resolution microscopy, spatial imaging with electrons, and mass spectrometry give insight into molecular self-replication. New theoretical methods and more powerful computation provide further understanding of the forces at play.

The program will be guided by four major research themes:

  • The molecular view. Chemistry becomes biology at the molecular level. Molecules, like proteins, are structurally extremely complex. It is important to understand how the structure controls the function of a molecule;
  • Molecular mapping of the cell. Huge numbers of molecules work together to make the cell function correctly. This theme seeks to understand how these networks of molecules interact to control cellular processes;
  • Whole cell integration. The control centre of the cell is the nucleus. This theme examines the mechanism by which the complex machinery of DNA and RNA is regulated and leads to effective control of gene expression;
  • Systems pharmacology. Increased understanding of the molecular pathways in cells will allow them to be manipulated, leading to rational drug design and other bottom-up therapeutics.



Fellows & Advisors

Photo of Oliver Ernst

Oliver Ernst

Program Co-Director

Oliver Ernst researches the receptors used in human nerve cell communication to send signals across membranes, and control many functions, including vision, memory, and learning. He is an expert on…

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Photo of R.J. Dwayne Miller

R.J. Dwayne Miller

Program Co-Director

Dwayne Miller has been widely recognized for his work in spectroscopy and the development of new electron sources for ultrafast laser technology. These advances have enabled real-time observation of atomic…

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Wolfgang Baumeister

Senior Fellow

Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry


Daniel Figeys

Senior Fellow

University of Ottawa


Lewis Kay

Senior Fellow

University of Toronto


Krzysztof Palczewski

Senior Fellow

Case Western Reserve University

United States

John Vederas

Senior Fellow

University of Alberta


Paul Wiseman

Senior Fellow

McGill University



Robert H Austin


Princeton University

United States

Brian Kobilka


Stanford University

United States

Daniel J Müller


ETH Zürich


David Stuart

Advisory Committee Chair

University of Oxford

United Kingdom

Global Scholars

Mikko Taipale

CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar

University of Toronto


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