Campus professor wins international biophysics award

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Earlier this month, a UC Berkeley professor was awarded the 2012 Raymond and Beverly Sackler International Prize in Biophysics, a prize that is awarded annually to leading chemists and physicists worldwide.

Carlos Bustamante — a campus professor of molecular and cell biology, physics and chemistry — was recognized for his research in understanding the role of cellular structures in DNA and RNA, among other molecular bodies. Bustamante was one of two recipients of this year’s award.

According to the website for Bustamante’s research lab, the procedure he studies uses an advanced form of detection called optical tweezers, which involves using highly focused lasers to unravel DNA proteins and study individual molecules.

“Studying chemistry, you have billions and trillions of molecules, and they change color, or there is some kind of chemical reaction between molecules when you mix them,” Bustamante said. “But when you can grab one single molecule of type A and one single molecule of type B, it helps us learn how those reactions occur.”

Bustamante, who has been studying single-molecule biophysics since 1992, said that the ability to inspect individual molecules can be applied to medical research as well.

“In biological states of diseases, we can now diagnose what went wrong,” Bustamante said.

Bustamante said he was notified of the prize two weeks ago when he received a phone call from Michael Urbakh, a coordinator of the award, followed by an email officially recognizing him as an award recipient.

Bustamante’s work is particularly significant because his research serves as a bridge between physics, chemistry and biology by incorporating fundamental processes of all three sciences, said David Raulet, co-chair of the campus molecular and cell biology department.

“The prize was really well deserved,” Raulet said. “It is beautiful work.”

Gheorghe Chistol, a graduate student researcher in Bustamante’s lab, said biologists, chemists and physicists work side by side in the lab. He added that Bustamante is one of the founding fathers of the field of optical tweezer-based single-molecule biophysics.

“Several people decided to go into the field of single-molecule experiments after reading one of his papers or hearing one of his presentations,” Chistol said. “Of course I am happy for him, for our lab and for Cal.”

The award, given annually by Tel Aviv University in Israel and funded by donations from Raymond and Beverly Sackler, includes a $100,000 monetary prize. The prize money will be equally distributed between Bustamante and Wolfgang Helfrich, a physicist at Freie Universitat Berlin. An award ceremony will be held in December.

“I’m very, very honored because it’s obviously a very prestigious award given to any biophysicist in the world,” Bustamante said. “I’m very honored to be selected this year.”

Contact Virgie Hoban at [email protected].