Bayreuth biochemist receives substantial EU funding for the construction of synthetic motor proteins
Prof. Dr. Birte Höcker, biochemist at the University of Bayreuth, has been awarded an ERC Synergy Grant by the European Research Council (ERC), one of the most prestigious science prizes in the European Union. Together with Prof. Dr. Heiner Linke from the University of Lund and Prof. Dr. Paul Curmi from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, she will investigate the functioning of motor proteins over the next six years. Motor proteins are indispensable for all cellular processes that keep the human, animal, or plant organism alive. The project will be funded by the EU with €10 million over the next six years.
Motor proteins can convert chemical energy into kinetic energy much more efficiently than man-made combustion engines. They use this energy for their own movement within living cells, or to transport molecular substances to their destination. However, despite numerous biochemical and biophysical studies, the details of these processes are still largely unknown. The research team from Bayreuth, Lund, and Sydney, through interdisciplinary cooperation and using the latest research technologies, is now attempting a fundamentally new approach towards achieving a precise scientific understanding of how motor proteins function.
„The ERC Synergy Grant now gives us the freedom to carry out six years’ worth of in-depth basic research, the results of which are currently still open-ended. We plan to build molecular machines from scratch in order to better understand how they work. To do this, we will need the combined expertise of structural and molecular biology, biochemical protein design, and single-molecule physics. We are confident that we will be able to elucidate important relationships and basic principles of motor proteins in this way,“ says Prof. Dr. Birte Höcker, who is Chair of Biochemistry III at the University of Bayreuth.
The goal: construction of a molecular robot
The award-winning research team will be guided in its research work by the credo of US Nobel Prize winner in physics, Richard Feynman: „What I cannot create, I do not understand.“ That is why the trilateral joint project is concerned with constructing new molecular machines from protein parts that have not been observed in other motor proteins. By designing and testing different modular blueprints, the scientists hope to discover how natural motor proteins function.
The first step is to build a „clocked walker“, a motor protein that can move precisely in a defined direction under external control. At the same time, however, they aspire to go one important step further. The aim is to design and build an autonomous motor protein that is able to control movement independently: a so-called „Autonomous Walker“ which does not require constant control by external signals. If the construction of such a molecular robot were successful, it would be an outstanding success for synthetic biology and the still young discipline of nanoengineering. The short name „ArtMotor“, which the research team has given to its project, ties in with this vision. It stands for „Artificial Motor Proteins“.
„Our research results will hopefully contribute to opening up new and far-reaching perspectives for biotechnological innovations. In order to build an autonomous motor protein, we need to be able to understand and handle complex molecular processes, which in protein research are referred to as ‚allostery‘. These still present us with many unresolved questions. If we succeed in influencing or even constructing allosteric processes in a targeted and systematic way, visions that are currently still a long way off could be realised much sooner – for example the construction of a biocomputer, building blocks for synthetic cells, or applications in molecular medicine,“ says Prof. Höcker.
Research at the frontiers of science
The ERC Synergy Grant is a research award with which the European Research Council supports particularly advanced research work carried out by small international teams. “The projects are meant to lead to discoveries at the interfaces between established disciplines, and to substantial push forward the frontiers of knowledge,“ says the homepage of the National Contact Point for the European Research Council (ERC), which is maintained by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the EU Cooperation Office of Science Organisations (KoWi) (https://www.eubuero.de/erc-synergy.htm).
Prof. Dr. Birte Höcker
University of Bayreuth
Phone: +49 (0) 921 / 55-7845