Klaus Schulten drafts blueprints of life—not with a pen, but with a computer program that his group developed over the last two decades. Using this program like a computational microscope, he can peer deep inside the smallest units of life, and he says the view is “absolutely gorgeous.”
“Experiments often cannot give you the detailed view that you need in order to understand a system,” said Schulten, a Swanlund Chair Professor of Physics at the University of Illinois. “A computational microscope functions when many other microscopes don’t work. It gives us a very unique picture of the details in living systems that can only be viewed with our type of microscopy.”
Schulten’s software reveals the amazing machinery that enables a bacterium to harness the energy of the sun. In Photosynthetic Membrane of Purple Bacteria – A Clockwork of Proteins and Processes, Schulten illustrates how 101 protein complexes and 16,000 lipids make up the bacterium’s powerhouse, called chromatophore. “It is a beautiful movie that shows a microscopic view, a very close look down to the level of atoms and electrons, within the bacterial cell,” he said.
More than 95 percent of life on Earth gets its energy from the sun, Schulten said. As a member of the Energy Biosciences Institute, he is interested in unlocking the secrets behind photosynthesis in bacteria, algae and plants to find ways to utilize sunlight, an abundant renewable resource, for human energy needs.
“We have to use industrial ways to take something men cannot use, like agricultural waste, and turn that into fuel,” Schulten said. “That is absolutely the right way to go, and I believe in it.”
Using his computational microscope, Schulten and his co-workers are collaborating with EBI experimental researchers to begin to understand and improve the enzymes that generate biofuels and the polymers that could accelerate biofuel generation. Schulten hopes to adopt many bacterial tricks for bioenergy production, including their ability to employ many enzymes at the same time to turn waste into valuable chemical compounds.
With more than 300,000 registered users, Schulten’s software (called Nanoscale Molecular Dynamics, or NAMD, and Visual Molecular Dynamics, or VMD) remains the premier program to simulate how proteins and other biomolecules carry out critical biological functions that can also serve as clean and sustainable tools for the chemical industry.
Thanks in part to this program, Schulten is one of the most highly cited scientists in the world. But this metric is also an indication of his reputation within the scientific community as an insightful, interdisciplinary, and tenacious scientist.
Early in his career, Schulten decided to combine the fields of physics and biology to understand quantum biology of vision. “It was an unusual activity at the time, not held in high regard even though there were great opportunities,” he said. “Basically, people thought I was too stupid to do real physics, but I knew the field of biological physics had a great future, and its development has proved me right.”
Schulten encountered resistance when his group discovered how animals can navigate through the Earth’s magnetic field using a sixth sense that is apparently vital for migratory animals. He first proposed the idea that this sensory capability is due to a biochemical reaction in 1978.
Science rejected his hypothesis with a note that read, “A less bold scientist would have designated this idea to the waste paper basket.” He published the idea in a more open-minded journal, and today his group’s work on the topic, stretching from 1978 to 2014, is highly cited.
“I can put my experience and all of my knowledge into my research, but I rely on other people who collaborate with me and do a major part of the work,” Schulten said. “That is what makes it fun—it is nice to work as a team, and that is also what makes us successful. There is no substitute for a really great team, and we have such team, particularly for our second generation biofuel efforts. With our experimental EBI colleagues at Illinois and the University of California in Berkeley, we can do so much more together than what our computational scientists could do alone.”
This article originally appeared on the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology website.