The Broad Spectrum of Biophysics

Biophysics Reviews

Biophysics Reviews is a journal that publishes topical review articles in the areas of biology-related physics. Its research encompasses the study of the structure of biological macromolecules such as DNA, muscle proteins and visual pigments.

Our first Front Matter item this week focuses on cancer mechanobiology and the ways that different mechanical properties of the environment outside a cell can be converted into biochemical outcomes within the cell.

What is Biophysics?

Biophysics uses the tools of physics and other physical sciences to study biological phenomena. It is behind diagnostic techniques such as MRI and CAT scans, pacemakers, and vaccine development. It explains how electricity powers nerve impulses and muscle contraction, how DNA molecules carry genetic instructions, and how a single, enormously long DNA molecule untwists to replicate itself precisely each time it splits.

Biophysicists study the structure and dynamics of proteins, nucleic acids, cells, and membranes on scales from nanometers to meters. They use mathematical models to describe how physical forces act on these systems, and they develop instruments to observe these dynamic structures.

Biophysicists often blur traditional disciplinary boundaries, with many trained in physics or chemistry as well as biology. They are interested in reducing complex biological processes such as protein synthesis to a sequence of binding events and chemical reactions, as well as understanding how these processes behave in their crowded native environment.

Membrane Biophysics

In biological systems, membranes form barriers that separate the inside from the outside. They are composed of fluid lipid bilayers in which proteins are embedded. Membrane proteins play a critical role in cellular functions such as signaling, transport and energy metabolism.

Researchers investigate how membrane proteins interact with lipids to achieve their biological function. The interactions between membrane proteins and lipids are complex, and their effects can be profound.

Membrane biophysics uses information collected from experiments and computer simulations to understand biological membrane structures and dynamics. Specifically, researchers use native nanodiscs to mimic the properties of membranes and study how membrane proteins interact with them. These experiments allow them to model the molecular interactions that occur in biological membranes at a level of detail that was not possible ten to twenty years ago.

Computational/Theoretical Biophysics

The research in this subgroup focuses on the development and application of computational methods for modeling biophysical systems. This includes the development of physics-based analytical theory and all computational simulation techniques including free energy sampling, coarse-graining, QM/MM, ligand docking, molecular dynamics and multiscale modeling as well as machine learning approaches.

Biological systems are extremely complex, with many scales of organization and a multitude of interactions. As such, it is often impossible to obtain experimental information for all of the relevant details.

Computational biophysicists attempt to fill this gap by developing models and simulation tools that complement and enhance experimental observations. Our researchers are at the forefront of these efforts and use advanced computer technology to investigate such diverse topics as protein and nucleic acid structure, folding/misfolding, DNA damage, cellular metabolism and gene regulation.

Protein Engineering

Proteins perform a wide variety of biological functions in living organisms and can be used to have industrial or medical applications. By modifying the amino acid sequence found in proteins, it is possible to go beyond what nature has evolved and gain entirely new properties and functionalities (Brustad and Arnold 2011). The process of doing this falls within the domain of protein engineering.

One such application is the use of engineered proteins to enable drug delivery systems. For example, engineered protein switches, which utilise inactive zymogens and trigger switchable protein activity upon activation can be designed to have a broad range of therapeutic applications.

Protein engineering capabilities have recently been expanding rapidly and this is reflected in the prize-winning article in the current issue of Biophysical Reviews from Assoc Prof. Miho Yanagisawa, winner of the 2022 Michele Auger Award for Young Scientists Independent Research.

Molecular Biophysics

Biophysicists are concerned with understanding the structures of proteins and protein complexes. These structures are critical to the understanding of how biological systems work.

This is a field that is at the cutting edge of physics and biology. Biophysical techniques such as X-ray crystallography, NMR spectroscopy, nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI), and atomic force microscopy (AFM) allow researchers to visualize structures of interest at the molecular level.

These methods also provide a wealth of other structural information such as how tightly proteins bind to their ligands, or the strength of intermolecular forces that hold protein molecules together and modulate their interactions with each other. This type of information can help understand many diseases at their fundamental molecular levels. This concentration requires 8 graduate credits and may be taken in conjunction with a primary Ph.D. track.

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