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Updated 10:00 AM April 10, 2006




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Symposium to explore life—one molecule at a time

Consider: Laser beams that act like miniature tweezers, tugging on molecules to turn genes on and off; motion-detecting microscopes that spy on interactions between drug-laden nanoparticles and membranes in living cells; fluorescent tags that make enzymes glow like neon when they change shape, tipping off researchers to the intricacies of their catalytic activities and providing a window into the origin of disease; and computer models that forecast experiments and help decipher how single genes are regulated.

These are the possibilities in an emerging field known as single molecule science. Thanks to the underlying tools, developed only during the past decade, scientists are able to probe the behavior and properties of individual molecules and apply what they learn to some of the most pressing questions in biology, medicine and nanotechnology.

U-M has many researchers exploring single molecule technologies and their uses, but until recently they've been scattered around campus, each pursuing individual projects and communicating with one another only sporadically. During the past year, however, researchers have joined forces to organize a Single Molecule Symposium May 18-20 they expect will be a springboard to establishing an internationally recognized Center of Single Molecule Analysis.

The symposium will feature an international slate of speakers who are leaders in single molecule science, including Paul Barbara of the University of Texas at Austin; Harold Craighead of Cornell University; Akihiro Kusumi of Kyoto University; Rob Phillips of the California Institute of Technology; Richard Superfine of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Sunney Xie and Xiaowei Zhuang of Harvard University; and Toshio Yanagida of Osaka University.

Anyone at U-M interested in single molecule analysis in biology and nanotechnology is invited to participate and is welcome to register by April 21 to present a poster.

"The idea is to have a symposium that's as broad in vision as the participants and sponsors are and to really bridge different parts of the University," says Nils Walter, associate professor of chemistry and chair of the eight-member steering committee that represents LSA, the College of Engineering (CoE) and the Medical School. In addition to making presentations, keynote speakers will meet with the steering committee to strategize about the future of single molecule science at the University.

The vision, Walter says, is to create a center where the University's single molecule scientists, their instruments and students would be under one roof, where other researchers come for synergy in applying single molecule techniques to problems in biology, medicine and nanotechnology.

"Given that we already have several groups here at Michigan working on single molecule technologies, the hope is that we can bring together their brainpower and technological expertise and then make that a strategic resource for other researchers on campus—and eventually from other institutions," Walter says. "This is something that we can do uniquely well at Michigan, given the low barriers between units and our aptitude for forging collaborations."

The symposium is sponsored by the Office of the Vice President of Research, Medical School, CoE, LSA, the Optical Physics Interdisciplinary Laboratory, and the Michigan Nanotechnology Institute for Medicine and the Biological Sciences.

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