Molecular Architecture of Life

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About this program

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.

Program at a glance

Founded in

2014

Members

15

Supporters

Government of British Columbia

Disciplines

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

Program details

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.

rhodopsin.complex

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

Program fellows & advisors

Program Co-Directors

Bio Outline
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.

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.

Fellows

DANIEL FIGEYS

Daniel Figeys

  • Senior Fellow
  • Molecular Architecture of Life
  • University of Ottawa
  • Canada
John Vederas

John Vederas

  • Senior Fellow
  • Molecular Architecture of Life
  • University of Alberta
  • Canada
Krzystof Palczewski

Krzysztof Palczewski

  • Senior Fellow
  • Molecular Architecture of Life
  • Case Western Reserve University
  • United States
Lewis Kay

Lewis Kay

  • Senior Fellow
  • Molecular Architecture of Life
  • University of Toronto
  • Canada
Michel Bouvier

Michel Bouvier

  • Senior Fellow
  • Molecular Architecture of Life
  • Université de Montréal
  • Canada
Ming Lei

Ming Lei

  • Senior Fellow
  • Molecular Architecture of Life
  • Shanghai Jiao Tong University
  • China
Paul Wiseman

Paul Wiseman

  • Senior Fellow
  • Molecular Architecture of Life
  • McGill University
  • Canada
SIHYUN HAM

Sihyun Ham

  • Senior Fellow
  • Molecular Architecture of Life
  • Sookmyung Women's University
  • South Korea
Bio Outline

Tanja Weil

  • Senior Fellow
  • Molecular Architecture of Life
  • Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research
  • Germany
Bio Outline

Wolfgang Baumeister

  • Senior Fellow
  • Molecular Architecture of Life
  • Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry
  • Germany

Advisors

Bio Outline

Brian Kobilka

  • Advisor
  • Molecular Architecture of Life
  • United States
David Stuart

David Stuart

  • Advisory Committee Chair
  • Molecular Architecture of Life
  • Oxford University
  • United Kingdom
Bio Outline

Lois Pollack

  • Advisor
  • Molecular Architecture of Life
Bio Outline

Robert H. Austin

  • Advisor
  • Molecular Architecture of Life
  • Princeton University
  • United States

CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars

Khanh Huy Bui

Khanh Huy Bui

  • CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar
  • Molecular Architecture of Life
  • McGill University
  • Canada
Mikko Taipale

Mikko Taipale

  • CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar
  • Molecular Architecture of Life
  • University of Toronto
  • Canada