The symphony of life, revealed: New imaging technique captures vibrations of proteins

January 16, 2014
Using a new imaging technique they developed, scientists have managed to observe and document the vibrations of lysozyme, an antibacterial protein found in many animals. This graphic visualizes the vibrations in lysozyme as it is excited by terahertz light (depicted by the red wave arrow). Such vibrations, long thought to exist, have never before been described in such detail, said lead researcher Andrea Markelz, a UB physicist. Credit: Andrea Markelz and Katherine Niessen.

Like the strings on a violin or the pipes of an organ, the proteins in the human body vibrate in different patterns, scientists have long suspected.

Now, a new study provides what researchers say is the first conclusive evidence that this is true.

Using a technique they developed based on terahertz near-field microscopy, scientists from the University at Buffalo and Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute (HWI) have for the first time observed in detail the vibrations of lysozyme, an antibacterial found in many animals.

The team found that the vibrations, which were previously thought to dissipate quickly, actually persist in molecules like the "ringing of a bell," said UB physics professor Andrea Markelz, PhD, wh0 led the study.

These tiny motions enable proteins to change shape quickly so they can readily bind to other proteins, a process that is necessary for the body to perform critical biological functions like absorbing oxygen, repairing cells and replicating DNA, Markelz said.

The research opens the door to a whole new way of studying the basic cellular processes that enable life.

"People have been trying to measure these vibrations in proteins for many, many years, since the 1960s," Markelz said. "In the past, to look at these large-scale, correlated motions in proteins was a challenge that required extremely dry and cold environments and expensive facilities."

"Our technique is easier and much faster," she said. "You don't need to cool the proteins to below freezing or use a or a nuclear reactor—all things people have used previously to try and examine these vibrations."

The findings will appear in Nature Communications on Jan. 16, and publication of information on the research is prohibited until 5 a.m. U.S. Eastern Time on that day.

To observe the protein vibrations, Markelz' team relied on an interesting characteristic of proteins: The fact that they vibrate at the same frequency as the light they absorb.

This is analogous to the way wine glasses tremble and shatter when a singer hits exactly the right note. Markelz explained: Wine glasses vibrate because they are absorbing the energy of sound waves, and the shape of a glass determines what pitches of sound it can absorb. Similarly, proteins with different structures will absorb and vibrate in response to light of different frequencies.

So, to study vibrations in lysozyme, Markelz and her colleagues exposed a sample to light of different frequencies and polarizations, and measured the types of light the protein absorbed.

This technique, developed with Edward Snell, a senior research scientist at HWI and assistant professor of structural biology at UB, allowed the team to identify which sections of the protein vibrated under normal biological conditions. The researchers were also able to see that the vibrations endured over time, challenging existing assumptions.

"If you tap on a bell, it rings for some time, and with a sound that is specific to the bell. This is how the proteins behave," Markelz said. "Many scientists have previously thought a protein is more like a wet sponge than a bell: If you tap on a wet sponge, you don't get any sustained sound."

Markelz said the team's technique for studying vibrations could be used in the future to document how natural and artificial inhibitors stop proteins from performing vital functions by blocking desired vibrations.

"We can now try to understand the actual structural mechanisms behind these biological processes and how they are controlled," Markelz said.

"The cellular system is just amazing," she said. "You can think of a cell as a little machine that does lots of different things—it senses, it makes more of itself, it reads and replicates DNA, and for all of these things to occur, proteins have to vibrate and interact with one another."

Explore further: Infrared spectroscopy allows scientists to analyze protein structure on ultrafast timescale

Related Stories

MU researchers develop advanced 3-D 'force microscope'

December 17, 2013

Membrane proteins are the "gatekeepers" that allow information and molecules to pass into and out of a cell. Until recently, the microscopic study of these complex proteins has been restricted due to limitations of "force ...

Quantum mechanics explains efficiency of photosynthesis

January 9, 2014

Light-gathering macromolecules in plant cells transfer energy by taking advantage of molecular vibrations whose physical descriptions have no equivalents in classical physics, according to the first unambiguous theoretical ...

A powerful technique to further understanding of RNA

January 9, 2014

Qi Zhang sees himself as a warrior. In his lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he wages war on genetic diseases such as cancer and heart disease on a battlefield measured with single atoms.

Recommended for you

A new form of real gold, almost as light as air

November 25, 2015

Researchers at ETH Zurich have created a new type of foam made of real gold. It is the lightest form ever produced of the precious metal: a thousand times lighter than its conventional form and yet it is nearly impossible ...

New 'self-healing' gel makes electronics more flexible

November 25, 2015

Researchers in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin have developed a first-of-its-kind self-healing gel that repairs and connects electronic circuits, creating opportunities to advance the ...

Getting under the skin of a medieval mystery

November 23, 2015

A simple PVC eraser has helped an international team of scientists led by bioarchaeologists at the University of York to resolve the mystery surrounding the tissue-thin parchment used by medieval scribes to produce the first ...

Atom-sized craters make a catalyst much more active

November 24, 2015

Bombarding and stretching an important industrial catalyst opens up tiny holes on its surface where atoms can attach and react, greatly increasing its activity as a promoter of chemical reactions, according to a study by ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (4) Jan 16, 2014
"The fact that they vibrate at the same frequency as the light they absorb."
This is a wonderful pursuit of research. The analogies are there on another
scale to my own pursuit in research: Stereocilia.

Sometimes principles are all-encompassing. Like principles of action or conservation.
5 / 5 (3) Jan 16, 2014
"You can think of a cell as a little machine that does lots of different things—it senses, it makes more of itself, it reads and replicates DNA, ,,,"
The universe, earth, and life are amazing. But don't make the mistake of contemplating that they may have been purposefully designed.
not rated yet Jan 16, 2014
My farts are amazing AND purposefully designed.
5 / 5 (3) Jan 16, 2014
Finally, an article about 'vibrations' that isn't complete total bullshit!
not rated yet Jan 16, 2014
Back in the Fifties, there was a SF novel called Fifth Column, where an Asian army takes over the USA. A secret group of scientists discover that Asians have a unique genome that can be ruined with the right frequency of radiation, so the scientists pretend to start a religion so they can spread their technology and kill all the Asians at once.

5 / 5 (3) Jan 16, 2014
Ok, so they vibrate. A surprising discovery would be that they didn't. To give this significance they need to first show it has a function in processes and second what that function might be. Maybe its the whole function of protein complexity but evidence is called for.

That it could possibly couple to the Hameroff-Penrose quantum mechanical microtubule vibrations would provide a link that's still missing and nonexistent according to Tegmark. Now that would be exciting! But then so much for ever really understanding the emergent behavior of things like brains. :-)
5 / 5 (2) Jan 17, 2014
Likely, those vibrations fulfills more than one function.
One of the functions could be emitting both short and long range electromagnetic signals that trigger processes elsewhere?
not rated yet Jan 17, 2014
Check out the biography of Royal Raymond Rife if you're interested in resonant frequency.
Whydening Gyre
not rated yet Jan 17, 2014
Likely, those vibrations fulfills more than one function.
One of the functions could be emitting both short and long range electromagnetic signals that trigger processes elsewhere?

Cogent comment. We know that nature is very efficient in it's usage of energy...
not rated yet Feb 02, 2014
Ok, so they vibrate. A surprising discovery would be that they didn't.
Indeed.. Which molecule doesn't vibrate, if it's irradiated with microwaves? This is how the spectra are measured... What the whole article is about?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.