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Science Goes 3-D: Revealing the Atomic Secrets Inside Our Cells

Thursday, October 25, 2018

6:00 PM Program | Reception to Follow


The Rockefeller University
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Hall
1230 York Avenue at East 66th Street


Richard P. Lifton, M.D., Ph.D.

President, Carson Family Professor


Roderick MacKinnon, M.D.

John D. Rockefeller Jr. Professor
Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology and Biophysics
Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Jue Chen, Ph.D.

William E. Ford Professor
Laboratory of Membrane Biology and Biophysics
Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

A breakthrough technology that can capture dynamic images of proteins at single-atom scale is revolutionizing biomedical research and drug discovery. Cryo-electron microscopy, or cryo-EM, offers new power to decipher the three-dimensional structures of molecules. The method is also ideal for studying subtle changes in a molecule’s shape that can affect biological function in health and disease. In the hands of scientists who have mastered the art of using the latest systems, cryo-EM is revealing unexpected paths to cures that seemed unattainable only a few years ago.

Rockefeller University investigators are in the vanguard of this technology-fueled revolution. One of the leaders in this field is Rockefeller University’s Roderick MacKinnon, who conducts structure-focused studies of key biological molecules of the nervous system, called ion channels. The discoveries that earned him the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry were made with approaches much more arduous, time-consuming, and unpredictable than today’s cryo-EM techniques. A few years ago, Dr. MacKinnon foresaw the potential of the new developments in cryo-EM, and he encouraged the University to make a substantial investment in the technology.

In 2014, Rockefeller became one of the first academic institutions in the world to acquire a cutting-edge cryo-EM system. The center that houses it is now busy seven days a week, running a diverse range of experiments conducted by Rockefeller’s six world-class labs specializing in structural biology, as well as other groups. In fact, the University is adding a third high-end electron microscope to accommodate the overwhelming demand.

On October 25, Dr. MacKinnon and Dr. Jue Chen will speak about the impact cryo-EM is having on basic and disease-focused research, with an emphasis on work under way in their labs. Dr. MacKinnon, the University’s John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Professor, will explain how a peculiar channel called piezo mediates touch sensation. Dr. Chen, the William E. Ford Professor, will discuss her use of cryo-EM to solve the structure of the human protein that is mutated in the severe and frequently fatal genetic disorder cystic fibrosis. This structure had been sought to no avail by dozens of labs for more than two decades. Dr. Chen and her colleagues are now studying various functional states of the protein, with the aim of developing drugs that target the causes of cystic fibrosis more effectively than current medications.

The Rockefeller University thanks Evelyn Lipper, Daniella Lipper Coules, the EGL Foundation, and Evan Greenberg for their extraordinary vision and generosity in funding the Evelyn Gruss Lipper Cryo-Electron Microscopy Resource Center.