Published: 14.12.11

Filming proteins in action

Roland Riek investigates protein structures, especially protein aggregates. He believes that we will be able to film proteins at atomic resolution in action in the future.

Interview: Peter Rüegg
Professor of Physical Chemistry, Roland Riek. (photo: Giulia Marthaler / ETH Zurich)
Professor of Physical Chemistry, Roland Riek. (photo: Giulia Marthaler / ETH Zurich) (large view)

What do you consider to be chemistry’s greatest achievement or most important discovery?
The identification of the three-dimensional structures of proteins and the DNA double helix, which enabled discovery of the functioning of proteins and DNA replication.

What fascinated you about chemistry?
The fact that the interaction of atoms with their electrons forms the basis for life.

What do you focus on in your research and what aspects of it are evident or usable in everyday life?
We examine the three-dimensional structures and dynamics of proteins and link them to how they work. In particular, we study protein aggregations that are associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, and with normal cellular activities such as the storage of hormones in the pituitary gland.

How will your field of research develop? Where does its potential lie?
Structural biology will develop to such an extent that we will be able to “film” a protein in action – and possibly even in living organisms, at that. As for protein aggregation, on the one hand we will be able to understand neurodegenerative diseases on a molecular and atomic level and successfully develop medication to treat them. On the other hand, protein aggregation will find its way into nanotechnology.

What concept from chemistry should everyone know by the end of the International Year of Chemistry and why?
The term “atom” because matter consists of atoms and, as I mentioned, the interaction between atoms forms the basis of life.

About the person

Roland Riek is a professor of physical chemistry and heads the Bio-Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Group at ETH Zurich’s Laboratory of Physical Chemistry. He studied physics at ETH Zurich and did his PhD thesis under Professor Kurt Wüthrich at the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biophysics.