Transformative discoveries in biomedicine are often driven by the emergence of revolutionary technologies. Today, we are approaching a new frontier in biomedical research, thanks to technological breakthroughs that have arisen from the convergence of many fields—physics, engineering, nanotechnology, computer science, biology, chemistry.
The Rockefeller University has a longstanding tradition of discoveries resulting from the invention and application of novel technologies. In the 1940s, for example, Rockefeller scientists pioneered the use of the electron microscope to study biological samples, which helped to create the modern field of cell biology. The invention of an automated system to synthesize proteins, the work of a Rockefeller scientist in the 1960s, transformed the field of biological chemistry. The technology was soon used in labs worldwide; it was adopted by industry, and it led to a Nobel Prize.
Today, the University subsidizes more than a dozen core technology facilities that provide scientists with access to sophisticated instruments too costly for most individual laboratories to purchase on their own. Staffed by scientists who provide technological expertise and training, these cost-effective resource centers are dedicated to such areas as optical microscopy, DNA sequencing, genomics, high-throughput screening, monoclonal antibody development, and many others technology needs.
One of the newest of these facilities is a state-of-the art center for cryo-electron microscopy (or cryo-EM), which uses the electron microscope to visualize proteins and molecular complexes at very fine resolution—down the level of atoms, their fundamental building blocks. Cryo-EM has undergone dramatic improvements in recent years and is now revolutionizing the field of structural biology, the study of the three-dimensional structures of biological molecules. Rockefeller’s cryo-EM center—one of the first at an academic institution—has recently supported ground-breaking research on cystic fibrosis.
The University has also launched an initiative in high-performance computing that is meeting the growing need to store and process the massive amounts of data generated by today’s technologies, including cryo-EM. Rockefeller’s computer cluster has been essential to research on:
- Mosquito olfaction, aimed at developing new ways to control the insects that transmit infectious agents such as the malaria parasite and the Zika, dengue, West Nile, and yellow fever viruses.
- The sense of hearing, specifically, mathematical modeling of mechanosensory reception in the inner ear.
- Analysis of sensory responses and decision-making through studies of the simultaneous activity of thousands of interacting neurons in the brain. Alipasha Vaziri, Ph.D., a neuroscientist trained in physics who joined the University in 2016, is developing optical imaging methods to study the brain that far exceed the capabilities of commercial instruments. He is the latest in a long line of Rockefeller scientists whose inventiveness has supported and inspired the work of biomedical investigators worldwide.