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08/10/2005 07:00:00

Nobel Laureate Receives $17.5 Million Grant to Create the New Field of Physical Biology

PASADENA, Calif.--Nobel Prize-winning chemist and physicist Ahmed Zewail has received an $17.5 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to create the Ultrafast Science and Technology (UST) Center at the California Institute of Technology.

The center will focus on a new scientific discipline at Caltech for which Zewail has coined the name "physical biology." The field will create new ways of understanding the dynamical behavior of biological systems by directly observing them in the four dimensions of space and time.

"The idea is to combine the principles of fundamental physics and chemistry to address complexity of biology at the molecular level," explains Zewail, who won his Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1999 for pioneering the development of the field of femtochemistry, which made it possible using lasers to freeze-frame motions taking place in a millionth of a billionth of a second.

Femtochemistry has been hailed as the breakthrough that allowed the motions of atoms in a molecule to be observed for the first time. Studies of basic life processes, however, because of their complexity, demand microscopic observation of all atoms in biological structures as those structures change.

The UST Center will be a nucleus for interactions between faculty and research assistants from the different disciplines of physics, chemistry, and biology at Caltech. The mission of the UST Center will be to develop the science and technology for imaging biological and molecular structures in space and time using diffraction, spectroscopy, and microscopy.

"The vision of UST is a new integrated science of structure and dynamics with the aim of deciphering the fundamental physics of molecular and biological behavior," Zewail says. "Our goal is to address the fundamentals at varying levels, from the atom to the cell."

Systems biologists have had success in applying breakthroughs in genomics, computational sciences, and other disciplines, with the aim of explaining how cells interact as a network. The aim of physical biology is to provide an understanding of the molecular architecture and transformations essential to function--of how things go from structure to dynamic interactions to function. And for this, it is necessary to look in all four dimensions at systems, such as proteins or cells, as they go about their business.

"All existing methods have focused on either the spatial or the temporal resolution," says Zewail, "but in complex systems, including biological systems, the combined resolutions are essential for a unified picture."

A very recent research article from Caltech in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), volume 102, page 7069-7073, dated May 17, 2005, describes an early success in four-dimensional ultrafast electron microscopy that holds considerable potential for the imaging of materials and cells as they transform. The researchers were able, using single-electron packets, to directly image the structure of rat intestinal cells in a femtosecond snapshot. A paper in Science, volume 304, page 80-84, dated April 2, 2004, provides the methodology for obtaining atomic-scale resolutions using ultrafast electrons. A patent is pending.

This recent success in imaging was commended by Sir John Thomas of Cambridge University in a highlight entitled "A Revolution in Electron Microscopy," which was published in the July 26, 2005, issue of the journal Angewandte Chemie ( Thomas said, "The development at Caltech of 4D diffraction, crystallography, and microscopy is indeed revolutionary. The door is now open for myriad explorations in the physical and biological sciences. "

David Tirrell, McCollum-Corcoran Professor and chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering says, "This is an enormously exciting opportunity for Caltech. Ahmed has already played a central role in showing us how chemical reactions occur; now with the help of the Moore Foundation, he and his colleagues in the UST Center will be able to bring a similar level of rigorous understanding to the processes that are required to sustain life and health."

"Seeing is believing, says Tom Tombrello, Kenan Professor and chair of Caltech's Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy. "We shall soon be in a position to see the molecules of life in action and be able to settle some of the fundamental scientific debates of our own times. Science progresses by observation, and when we are able to develop unique techniques of 'seeing,' new and unexpected areas of our world are illuminated."

Zewail is Pauling Professor of chemistry and physics at Caltech.

Established in September 2000, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation seeks to create positive outcomes for future generations.




Written by Robert Tindol