News

  • Outreach
  • Biological Physics

As part of a campus-wide initiative to increase diversity, a collaboration with Fisk University was recently approved for an additional five years of continued financial support from the Office of Executive Associate Chancellor for Administration and University Relations and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research (OVCRI). Founder Professor of Physics Jun Song (ACPP) will oversee hands-on bioinformatics, data analysis, and biophysics training for under-represented minority undergraduate students from Fisk University, a minority-serving institution (MSI) in Nashville, Tennessee.

  • Accolades
  • Biological Physics

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Physics Professor Paul Selvin has been awarded the 2020 Gregorio Weber Award for Excellence in Fluorescence Theory and Applications of the Biological Fluorescence Subgroup of the Biophysical Society. The award is endowed by the ISS (Instrumenzione Scientificia Sperimentale). ISS, located in Champaign, IL, designs and manufactures highly sensitive fluorescence and biomedical instrumentation for research, clinical, and industrial applications.

Named for Illinois Biochemistry Professor Gregorio Weber, a pioneer in the development of both the theory and the application of fluorescence techniques in biology and biochemistry, this award recognizes distinguished individuals who have made original and significant contributions to the field of fluorescence.

Selvin has developed ground-breaking fluorescence instrumentation and techniques at the intersection of physics and biochemistry, shedding new light on the properties and behaviors of biomolecules in living cells. Early in his career, he devised the lanthanide resonance energy transfer (LRET) technique to investigate the chemical properties and structural dynamics of DNA systems. The LRET technique, which offered a 100-fold improvement in signal-to-background resolution over conventional techniques, is now widely used by the pharmaceutical industry for drug discovery.

  • Research
  • Biological Physics
  • Theoretical Biological Physics
  • Biophysics

Scientists have simulated every atom of a light-harvesting structure in a photosynthetic bacterium that generates energy for the organism. The simulated organelle behaves just like its counterpart in nature, the researchers report. The work is a major step toward understanding how some biological structures convert sunlight into chemical energy, a biological innovation that is essential to life.

The researchers report their findings in the journal Cell.

The team originally was led by University of Illinois Physics Professor Klaus Schulten and the work continued after Schulten’s death in 2016. The study fulfills, in part, Schulten’s decades-long dream of discovering the mechanisms by which atomic-level interactions build and animate living systems.

  • Faculty Highlights
  • Biological Physics
  • Biophysics

As a biological physicist, Ido Golding studies the function of living cells. He is best known for the experimental quantification of key biological processes, such as gene expression and viral infection, inside individual bacterial cells.

  • Faculty Highlights
  • Biological Physics
  • Biophysics

Sangjin is a biological physicist who brings both graduate work in single-molecule biophysics and postdoctoral research in microbiology to her research plan at Illinois. She developed the first study to establish that DNA has an allosteric property.

  • Research
  • Biological Physics
  • Biophysics

Scientists studying genetic transcription are gaining new insights into a process that is fundamental to all life. Transcription is the first step in gene expression, the process taking place within all living cells by which the DNA sequence of a gene is copied into RNA, which in turn (most generally speaking) serves as the template for assembling protein molecules, the basic building blocks of life.

Much of what scientists have uncovered about transcription over the past five decades is based on bulk investigative techniques employing large numbers of living cells. Today, advanced imaging techniques allow scientists to probe the inner workings of transcription at the scale of individual genes, and a new more detailed picture of this vital process is emerging.

Just this week, two new in vivo single-molecule studies of transcription in E. coli were published by scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, one by Professor Ido Golding and colleagues, unveiling unexpected and up-to-now hidden drivers of cellular individuality; the other by Professor Sangjin Kim and colleagues, demonstrating for the first time that transcription dynamics are affected by molecular-scale long-distance communication between RNA polymerase (RNAP) molecules while they are “reading” a gene sequence one base at a time and assembling the complementary RNA strand.

  • Research
  • Theoretical Biological Physics
  • Biological Physics
  • Biophysics

While watching the production of porous membranes used for DNA sorting and sequencing, University of Illinois researchers wondered how tiny steplike defects formed during fabrication could be used to improve molecule transport. They found that the defects – formed by overlapping layers of membrane – make a big difference in how molecules move along a membrane surface. Instead of trying to fix these flaws, the team set out to use them to help direct molecules into the membrane pores.

Their findings are published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

Nanopore membranes have generated interest in biomedical research because they help researchers investigate individual molecules – atom by atom – by pulling them through pores for physical and chemical characterization. This technology could ultimately lead to devices that can quickly sequence DNA, RNA or proteins for personalized medicine.

  • Research
  • Biological Physics

A previously unappreciated interaction in the genome turns out to have possibly been one of the driving forces in the emergence of advanced life, billions of years ago.

This discovery began with a curiosity for retrotransposons, known as “jumping genes,” which are DNA sequences that copy and paste themselves within the genome, multiplying rapidly. Nearly half of the human genome is made up of retrotransposons, but bacteria hardly have them at all.

Nigel Goldenfeld, Swanlund Endowed Chair of Physics and leader of the Biocomplexity research theme at the IGB, and Thomas Kuhlman, a former physics professor at Illinois who is now at University of California, Riverside, wondered why this is.“We thought a really simple thing to try was to just take one (retrotransposon) out of my genome and put it into the bacteria just to see what would happen,” Kuhlman said. “And it turned out to be really quite interesting.”

  • Accolades
  • Alumni News
  • Biological Physics
  • Quantitative Physics

Dr. Hong-Yan Shih, a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Physics and at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been selected for the 2019 Dissertation Award in Statistical and Nonlinear Physics of the American Physical Society (APS). This award recognizes exceptional young scientists who have performed original doctoral thesis work of outstanding scientific quality in the area of statistical and nonlinear physics. Shih will be presented with the award at the APS March Meeting, where she will give an invited talk.

Shih completed her doctoral dissertation titled “Spatial-temporal patterns in evolutionary ecology and fluid turbulence” in 2017 working in Professor Nigel Goldenfeld’s theoretical physics group. It explores “the turbulence of ecosystems and the ecology of turbulence.” In her thesis, Shih reports on three projects at the boundaries of ecology and evolution, analyzed using methods from statistical mechanics, and a fourth project that made a major advance to the important problem of the laminar-turbulent transition of fluids in pipes. This latter problem was first scientifically studied in 1883, and Shih’s contribution arose from an unusual perspective.

  • Alumni News
  • In the Media
  • Biological Physics

These days, Cissé, a newly minted American citizen, is breaking paradigms instead of electronics. He and colleagues are making movies using super-resolution microscopes to learn how genes are turned on. Researchers have spent decades studying this fundamental question.

Cissé thinks physics can help biologists better understand and predict the process of turning genes on, which involves copying genetic instructions from DNA into RNA. His work describes how and when proteins congregate to instigate this process, which keeps cells functioning properly throughout life.

  • Research
  • Biological Physics

Scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have produced the most precise picture to date of population dynamics in fluctuating feast-or-famine conditions. Professor Seppe Kuehn, a biological physicist, and his graduate student Jason Merritt found that bacterial population density is a function of both the frequency and the amplitude of nutrient fluctuations. They found that the more frequent the feast cycles and the longer a feast cycle, the more rapid the population recovery from a famine state. This result has important implications for understanding how microbial populations cope with the constant nutrient fluctuations they experience in nature.

  • Research
  • Biological Physics

In a new study in cells, University of Illinois researchers have adapted CRISPR gene-editing technology to cause the cell’s internal machinery to skip over a small portion of a gene when transcribing it into a template for protein building. This gives researchers a way not only to eliminate a mutated gene sequence, but to influence how the gene is expressed and regulated.

  • Research
  • Biological Physics

Scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have predicted new physics governing compression of water under a high-gradient electric field. Physics Professor Aleksei Aksimentiev and his post doctoral researcher James Wilson found that a high electric field applied to a tiny hole in a graphene membrane would compress the water molecules travelling through the pore by 3 percent. The predicted water compression may eventually prove useful in high-precision filtering of biomolecules for biomedical research.

  • Research
  • Biological Physics
  • Biophysics

A new synthetic enzyme, crafted from DNA rather than protein, flips lipid molecules within the cell membrane, triggering a signal pathway that could be harnessed to induce cell death in cancer cells.   

Researchers at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Cambridge say their lipid-scrambling DNA enzyme is the first in its class to outperform naturally occurring enzymes – and does so by three orders of magnitude. They published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.

  • Research
  • Biological Physics
  • Biophysics

The mechanism of pattern formation in living systems is of paramount interest to bioengineers seeking to develop living tissue in the laboratory. Engineered tissues would have countless potential medical applications, but in order to synthesize living tissues, scientists need to understand the genesis of pattern formation in living systems.

A new study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Applied Physics Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University has brought science one step closer to a molecular-level understanding of how patterns form in living tissue. The researchers engineered bacteria that, when incubated and grown, exhibited stochastic Turing patterns: a “lawn” of synthesized bacteria in a petri dish fluoresced an irregular pattern of red polka dots on a field of green.

  • In the Media
  • Biological Physics

In a paper in Nano Letters ("Optical Voltage Sensing Using DNA Origami"), a research team, led by Keyser, Philip Tinnefeld from the Institute of Physical and Theoretical Chemistry at Technical University Braunschweig, and Aleksei Aksimentiev from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has now reported for the first time, that a voltage can be read out in a nanopore with a dedicated Förster resonance energy transfer (FRET) sensor on a DNA origami.