February 27, 2012

Johns Hopkins biophysicist wins Humboldt Research Award

George D. Rose, a biophysicist at The Johns Hopkins University, has been awarded a Humboldt Research Award by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Germany.

The Humboldt Research Awards are granted in recognition of researchers who have made significant and fundamental discoveries in their disciplines. In order to inspire and cultivate international scientific cooperation, winners are invited to spend up to a year working on a long-term research project with colleagues at a research institution in Germany.

Rose, the Krieger-Eisenhower Professor in the Thomas C. Jenkins Department of Biophysics in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, will spend the year as the Honorary Hans Fischer Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Technical University of Munich. There, he will collaborate with Thomas Kiefhaber on projects involving protein folding; he also will visit several other laboratories in the country.

“In Germany, research in biophysics is conducted and supported at the highest level,” Rose said. “I am delighted to have this open-ended opportunity to work with Professor Kiefhaber, a world-class investigator in protein folding.”

According to Rose, protein folding is perhaps the simplest, yet deepest, unsolved problem in biophysical chemistry.

“For proteins, function follows form,” he said. “A protein is a linear sequence of amino acids, arranged like different-colored beads upon a string. Under normal physiological conditions, this string spontaneously folds up into a unique three-dimension structure, and, remarkably, no additional energy is required to drive this process during which an organized structure emerges from a disorganized one, somewhat like a string that untangles itself.”

The structure of more than 70,000 proteins has been determined experimentally, and patterns extracted from this repository have been used successfully to predict the fold of new proteins, Rose said. In principle, he said, it should be possible to base successful prediction on physical principles instead of known patterns, but this goal has yet to be achieved. This is the folding research question that Rose and Kiefhaber will tackle together. Specifically, they will design experiments using the Kiefhaber group’s well-developed spectroscopic methods to test hypotheses that Rose has proposed.

Bertrand Garcia-Moreno, chairman of the Department of Biophysics at Johns Hopkins, calls Rose’s award richly deserved.

“For three decades, George has been unraveling mysteries of protein structure,” Garcia-Moreno said. “[He] has a knack for avoiding getting lost amidst the details, for peering through complexity and for recognizing simple organizing principles that elude the rest of us, even when we are staring right at them. He frequently inspects the structures of proteins not in search of answers but in search of new questions.

“His papers have this wonderful quality about them,” Garcia-Moreno continued. “They trigger the ‘aha, this is important, and it is straightforward—why didn’t I think [of] it myself?’ moments. It is wonderful that a lifetime of important contributions is being recognized with the prestigious Humboldt Award, and that he will
be afforded quality time to work closely with some outstanding colleagues in Germany.”

The Humboldt Foundation, named after nature researcher, explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), has its headquarters in the Bad Godesberg district of Bonn. Annually, it grants up to 100 Humboldt Research Awards in all branches of science.

For more about Rose and his lab, go to biophysics.jhu.edu/faculty-pages/rose.html.