Throughout the ages, many mystics have sought explanations for the mysteries of life. Some have based their questions upon myth and some upon fact, but a group of scientists from the University of California, Santa Barbara and Florida State University (FSU) believe they have come a few steps closer to explaining these mysteries.

The group, led by UCSB physicist Mark Sherwin, combined the talents of the UCSB scientists-physicists S. James Allen and Elliot Brown, molecular biologist Kevin W. Plaxco, biochemist Song-I Ha, experimental cosmologist Phil Lubin, and electrical engineer Mark Rodwell-and Louis Claude Brunel and Johan van Tol-scientists with the National Magnetic Field Laboratory at FSU-to better understand how proteins work in life processes.

“In order to understand how a machine functions, you want to somehow watch it move, which is extremely challenging with a machine as tiny as a protein,” said Sherwin, who is also the director of the UCSB Institute for Quantum and Complex Dynamics. “We believe that ‘filming’ proteins in action using our free-electron lasers will make singular contributions to the understanding of life itself, specifically the molecular machinery that underlies life’s processes.”

The “filming” process occurs using a laser which operates in the segment of the electromagnetic spectrum between 0.1 and 10 terahertz. Sherwin explained that one terahertz has a frequency about 1000 times higher that a one gigahertz computer’s clock speed, and 1000 times lower than visible light. He also stated that proteins act when embedded in cell membranes or dissolved in water. The terahertz laser operates at the speed at which is best to observe these motions.

“The scientific discovery and knowledge that are likely to emerge from the proposed research will make a quantum leap toward understanding the molecular mechanisms of life processes,” said UCSB Chancellor Henry T. Yang. Yang also expressed gratitude to the W.M. Keck Foundation, which funded the project with a $1.75 million grant.


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