Juri Rappsilber has made a pioneering effort in the field of protein research: The Einstein-Professor of biotechnology at Technische University of Berlin has developed a method with which he can elucidate the interaction of the macromolecules. Thus, the scientist achieved an internationally leading role in his field of expertise. In 2010 he accepted a professorship at the University of Edinburgh. As an Einstein professor, he returned to the TU a year later, where he earned his diploma in chemistry in 1995.
»Proteins are my passion«
Using mass spectrometry to analyse proteins is my biggest passion as a researcher. Just like artists with their brushes and palettes, scientists are enamoured of their tools. It’s exciting for me to work with mass spectrometers and the data they produce, and discover different aspects of life at the molecular level.
Proteins are highly sophisticated and multi-faceted molecules. That should come as no surprise – they’re the building blocks of life. We investigate proteins by breaking them down into their component parts and weighing these fragments in a mass spectrometer.
To understand the functions of different proteins, we also need to study how they interact. Unfortunately, current technologies make this task very time-consuming. Our new technology is designed to simplify this process with the objective of describing entire protein networks in great detail and tracking their changes. There’s a small trick that we use to join proteins: we chemically bond neighbouring points in the same protein or in two interacting proteins. Traces of the three-dimensional structure and interactions are then retained in the fragments we measure and analyse using the mass spectrometer. This helps us determine whether two proteins shake hands as “lefties” or “righties”, for example.
Someday I would like to be able to watch the interactions of all proteins in a cell like I would watch a film. That would give us a comprehensive insight into how life works and how illnesses arise, since many diseases can be identified based on faulty protein structures and interactions. Pinpointing and understanding these defects will help us find the right approach for developing new medications. Our technology will be an important part of the discovery process.
It’s going to be a long road until we finally reach our goal. But our technology is already being used to address a whole series of important questions in collaboration with different colleagues. This lets us test our tools in everyday research settings and it also means we can keep expanding the limits of biological and medical science.
Life’s complexity does not phase me. At some point, I realised that it would simply be impossible to comprehend the vastness of the universe. We inhabit a limited part of space and that’s all we can ultimately explore. This explor- ation process is something that I truly enjoy. I know I will never be able to understand life in its full molecular complexity. It’s the same infinite conundrum, simply on a microcosmic scale.
Photo: Pablo Castagnola