Yann Robert Chemla

Yann Robert Chemla
Yann Robert Chemla

Primary Research Area

  • Biological Physics
(217) 333-6501
161 Loomis Laboratory
Associate Head for Undergraduate Program
(217) 333-6501
229 Loomis Laboratory

For more information


  • Ph.D., Physics, University of California-Berkeley, 2001


Professor Yann Chemla received his PhD. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley in 2001. As an experimentalist in applied superconductivity, he developed an interest in biology through his study of magnetotactic bacteria with a superconducting magnetometer (Chemla et al., Biophys J., 1999), and the development of a biosensor based on functionalized magnetic nanoparticles (Chemla et al., PNAS, 2000). Prof. Chemla made the “leap” to biophysics as a postdoctoral fellow, moving down the hall to Prof. Carlos Bustamante’s laboratory at Berkeley. There, he learned the techniques of single-molecule manipulation and used an optical trap to study viral DNA packaging (Chemla et al., Cell, 2005). In 2005, he received one of the prestigious Career Awards at the Scientific Interface (CASI) from the Burroughs-Wellcome Fund. He joined the Department of Physics at Illinois in January 2007.

Research Statement

The cell is a factory of complex molecular structures that carry out specialized mechanical tasks and that behave remarkably like machines. Molecular motors, as they are called, are involved in such diverse processes as replicating the genome or transporting cargo across the cell, typically moving in discrete steps along a track — actin, microtubules, or DNA itself — converting chemical energy into mechanical work. A broad area of interest in my laboratory will be understanding the mechanism by which these molecular machines operate, and specifically, the process of mechano-chemical conversion.

Biophysical techniques that can detect such processes at the level of a single molecule are extremely powerful, since they are not subject to the averaging artifacts of traditional bulk biochemical methods. Optical traps, or “optical tweezers,” which utilize the force generated by focused laser light to manipulate microscopic objects, have been used extensively to measure the movements and forces exerted by individual molecular motors.

Recently, advances to this technique have made it possible to resolve motions on the scale of a single base pair of DNA, or only 3.4Å (see for example, Moffitt et al., PNAS, 2006). These high-resolution optical trapping techniques have the potential to reveal, for the first time, the stepwise motions of a host of molecular motors that translocate along or interact with nucleic acids and proteins. Access to this length scale should lead to a more detailed and refined understanding of many fundamental processes.

Students in my laboratory will work on all facets of research in this area: design and construction of instrumentation, development of biological systems for single-molecule manipulation, and quantitative analysis and modeling of collected data. Interested students and postdocs with backgrounds in physics, biology, chemistry, or related fields are welcome to contact me.

Chapters in Books

  • Whitley K.D., Comstock M.J., Chemla Y.R. (2017) High-Resolution Optical Tweezers Combined With Single-Molecule Confocal Microscopy. In Single-molecule Enzymology: Nanomechanical Manipulation and Hybrid Methods, Methods in Enzymology, Vol. 582 (Maria Spies & Yann R. Chemla Ed.), Elsevier
  • Whitley K.D., Comstock M.J., Chemla Y.R. (2016) "High-Resolution Fleezers: Dual-trap Optical Tweezers Combined with Single-Molecule Fluorescence Detection" in Optical Tweezers (Arne Gennerich Ed.), Springer.
  • Chemla, Y.R., Smith, D.E., Single-molecule studies of viral DNA packaging. In Viral Molecular Machines (V. Rao & M. Rossman, eds.) Springer, New York, NY (2011)
  • C. Bustamante, Y.R. Chemla, J.R. Moffitt. High resolution dual trap optical tweezers with differential detection. In Single Molecule Techniques: A Laboratory Manual (P. Selvin & T.J. Ha, eds.) Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, Woodbury NY. (2007)

Selected Articles in Journals


  • American Physical Society Fellow (2020)
  • Dean's Award for Excellence in Research, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (2016)
  • University of Illinois Willett Faculty Scholar Award (2015)
  • Center for Advanced Study (2012)
  • Sloan Research Fellowship (2010)
  • NSF CAREER Award (2010)
  • Career Awards at the Scientific Interface (CASI), Burroughs-Wellcome Fund (2005)

Recent Courses Taught

  • PHYS 102 - College Physics: E&M & Modern
  • PHYS 110 - Physics Careers
  • PHYS 211 - University Physics: Mechanics
  • PHYS 427 - Thermal & Statistical Physics

Semesters Ranked Excellent Teacher by Students

Spring 2020PHYS 102
Fall 2018PHYS 211
Spring 2017PHYS 427
Fall 2016PHYS 427
Spring 2012PHYS 427