60 Seconds with Andrea Markelz

You might say that UB physicist Andrea Markelz studies the symphony of life. Her research provides the first conclusive evidence that proteins in the body vibrate in different patterns, like strings on a violin. Scientists believe these tiny motions are critical to biological processes, enabling cells to function.

Vibrations in lysozyme excited by terahertz light.

Vibrations in lysozyme, an antibacterial protein found in many animals, excited by terahertz light. Photo: Andrea Markelz and Katherine Niessen

Andrea Markelz, UB physicist

Why are protein vibrations so difficult to observe?
In the lab, it’s hard to see solely the protein’s structure and what it’s doing. There’s water everywhere, and it’s moving. And there are these little chemical sidechains hanging off the protein, and they’re all moving, too.

How did you get around this problem?
We used a new microscope technique that enables us to basically remove the parts that we don’t want to see. So it’s like putting on a filter, right? If you want to see green light, you filter out all the colors except for green. That’s the philosophy. What we do in the lab is filter out everything except the signals from the protein.

What did the vibrations look like when you saw them?
Some scientists thought protein vibrations would dissipate almost immediately because the proteins would lose energy very quickly. Instead, we saw very clear signatures of sustained vibrations that persisted over time, like the ringing of a bell.

What purpose do protein vibrations serve?
One possible answer is that proteins have to change their shape so they can bind to other molecules, like a clamp. The oscillation, with the clamp going from open to closed, creates the shape necessary for binding.

Why is this binding so crucial?
It allows for intimate contact between molecules, for chemical reactions to take place. Biological processes that rely on these internal motions may include nerve transmission—cells signaling to one another—and gene expression.

What’s the practical value of your research?
Pharmaceuticals often work by knocking out or inhibiting unwanted chemical reactions. So imagine if you could put a very rigid piece of tape on the protein, so it can’t change shape and clamp anymore. Knowing what the vibrations look like can help us do this.