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.
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. 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).
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.
Contact the program’s senior director, Pamela Kanellis