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IUPUI physicist is advancing knowledge of communication within cells and molecular motors



INDIANAPOLIS — Steve Pressé, an assistant professor of physics in the School of Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, has received a $1 million CAREER award, the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious award in support of junior faculty. He has also received a $360,000 grant from the Department of Defense Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative, administrated by the Army Research Office.

With support from the five-year NSF CAREER award, Pressé is investigating how communication occurs within living cells and is developing an interactive summer camp program called Bacterial Serengeti to introduce elementary school students to physical science concepts relevant to living systems. He is also creating a new IUPUI undergraduate biophysics course and expanding biophysics research opportunities for both undergraduates and high school students.

His research is focused on building mathematical and computer methods to analyze data and, ultimately, understand how information transfers occur within living cells at the level at which they happen — the level of single biological molecules.

“Making sense of the wealth of experimental data existing on living systems will lead to deep insight into how cells communicate,” said Pressé. “The basic challenge is to draw meaningful models from limited snapshots of cellular events captured in action.”

To explain the focus of his NSF-funded research, Pressé uses the analogy of voter polls. Polling individual voters — the analog of a single biological molecule — is more labor-intensive and time-consuming than extrapolating from representative survey data, but it provides detailed knowledge that gives predictive power.

“When you have a representative poll, like an election-day voters exit poll, you are getting a general sense. But if you ask all of the individuals in a community about their motivations, you can begin building a model that may predict how things could change in time,” said Pressé. “And asking individuals in the community where they happen to live — on a college campus, in their neighborhood — or at their job site is similar to interrogating individual biological molecules in living cells rather than in test tubes.

“Like individuals, biological molecules communicate with one another. If you keep a person sequestered for a month, you probably will get a very different opinion than if you allow them to freely communicate with family, friends, co-workers and neighbors as they normally would. The same is true of biological molecules. It’s worth the extra effort to look at molecules in living cells, even if living cells are messy, because it’s unclear how representative the behaviors of biological molecules in test tubes really are.”

The NSF award also provides funding for a novel summer camp program for elementary school students that will take place at the Indianapolis Zoo. During Bacteria Serengeti, the K-6 students will learn about predators and prey moving rapidly from the macro (lions and gazelles) to the microscopic with a focus on how bacterial predators and prey communicate.

In the research supported by the Department of Defense initiative, Pressé is focusing on how molecular motors, with their minute size and unparalleled efficiency, work. The key to understanding the efficiency, according to Pressé, is the motor’s environment. In 2015, he and colleagues from the University of California, Berkeley published a landmark study in Nature suggesting the surprising role the environment can play in dissipating heat at the nanoscopic scale of biological molecules.

“Understanding physical principles that function at the nanoscopic scale — the molecular level — can inspire our thinking at much larger scales,” said Pressé. “Evolution has had billions of years to tinker with these motors and turn them into what they are today. The question now is, what can we learn about them that can subsequently be scaled up? In other words, what can we learn that could be translated into efficiency at the level needed for human-designed and human-sized machines to operate?”

A graduate of McGill University, Pressé earned his Ph.D. at MIT and completed his postdoctoral training at the University of California, San Francisco. He joined the IUPUI faculty in 2013. In addition to his research and teaching, he serves as a mentor for high school, undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students.

The School of Science at IUPUI is committed to excellence in teaching, research and service in the biological, physical, computational, behavioral and mathematical sciences. The school is dedicated to being a leading resource for interdisciplinary research and science education in support of Indiana’s effort to expand and diversify its economy.