Ulrich Hansmann Honored for Research on Protein Folding

By Jennifer Donovan

Ulrich Hansmann, professor of physics and leader in computational and biophysics research, has received Michigan Tech’s 2009 Research Award.

Hansmann is renowned for his computational modeling of protein folding, a molecular process that, when it goes awry, can give rise to neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s. His work could help uncover the underlying processes causing proteins to misfold, potentially leading to effective therapies.

“Uli’s achievements in the protein-folding problem—one of the most significant challenges in science today—have been astonishing,” says Robert H. Swendsen, professor of physics at Carnegie Mellon University.

As a leader in the field of systems biology, Hansmann’s work straddles the intersection of computing and biology, one of the hottest areas in science. By modeling molecular networks and simulating cellular biophysics, Hansmann aims to give medical researchers new tools to study complex diseases.

“Many biological systems just can’t be studied experimentally,” he said. “You have to use a computer simulation.” Protein folding is a case in point. As proteins form, pairs of molecules join together, a process called dimerization. It happens so quickly and on such a small scale that observing it is impossible with existing technologies. But computer models can predict how and where the molecules latch onto each other and where things might go wrong.

“The idea of using computers as virtual microscopes is catching on, and it will have a growing influence on the life sciences over the next ten or twenty years,” says Hansmann. He adds that the field is intriguing enough to have captivated billionaire scientist-financier David Shaw, who now leads his own lab that develops computers specialized for simulations of proteins and other biological macromolecules.

Systems biology is more than the next big thing in science, however. It also makes good economic sense. Lab-based experimental research is expensive, and computer models can help scientists narrow their experiments down to the most promising lines of inquiry.

One of the molecules Hansmann and his team are studying is the beta-amyloid peptide, which makes up the plaque that forms in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. “We are interested in the early stages of the outbreak,” he says. In particular, they are curious about exactly when peptides become malformed. Does a single peptide fold the wrong way, causing a cascade of plaque formation? Or is this deformation a natural result of countless peptides joining together to form the long polymers that make up plaque? “Each of these scenarios would suggest a different strategy to inhibit plaque formation,” Hansmann says.

Although Hansmann is doing cutting-edge work, he is in no way proprietary about it. He has developed a software program called Simple Molecular Mechanics for Proteins (SMMP) that is freely available as open source software. One of his ongoing research goals is to develop public software for molecular simulation of cells. He also helped the John von Neumann Institute for Computing in Jülich, Germany, develop a computational biology and biophysics research group.

He recently was named a Fellow of the American Physical Society (APS). His research is supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries around the world. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our beautiful campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.