Andrea Markelz, Professor of Physics
Professor of Physics Andrea Markelz, winner of the University at Buffalo’s 2014 Exceptional Scholar and Teaching Innovation Award, chairs 13 PhD committees and serves on 15 more. She also has adjunct appointments in Biophysics, Electrical Engineering, Physiology and Structural Biology. She studies biomolecular dynamics and collective excitations in optical and electronic materials using a variety of tools. The overlapping technology for these diverse topics is terahertz spectroscopy. Terahertz light is uniquely suited to the study of these systems. In addition to the experimental work, she uses molecular dynamics simulations to explore the role of structrual dynamics in protein function.
Markelz led a study with colleagues from UB and Hauptman- Woodward Medical Research Institute. Using a technique they developed based on terahertz near-field microscopy, they were able for the first time to observe in detail the vibrations of lysozyme, an antibacterial protein found in many animals. They found that the vibrations, which were previously thought to dissipate quickly, actually persist in molecules like the “ringing of a bell,” in her words.
These tiny motions enable proteins to change shape quickly so they can readily bind to other proteins, a process which is necessary for the body to perform critical biological functions like absorbing oxygen, repairing cells and replicating DNA. The research leads to a whole new way of studying the basic cellular processes which enable life.
“People have been trying to measure these vibrations in proteins for many, many years, since the 1960s,” Markelz said. “In the past, to look at these large-scale, correlated motions in proteins was a challenge that required extremely dry and cold environments and expensive facilities.” “Our technique is easier and much faster,” she said. “You don’t need to cool the proteins to below freezing or use a synchrotron light source or a nuclear reactor — all things people have used previously to try and examine these vibrations.”