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A new research project, designed to help unravel the mysteries behind the body's important biochemistry and molecular signalling, has received a substantial grant.

Pioneering research project received substantial grant

A pioneering new research project, that is designed to help unravel the mysteries behind some of the most important biochemistry and molecular signalling that make our bodies work, has received a substantial grant.

Professor Frank Vollmer, a biophysics expert from the University of Exeter’s Living Systems Institute, will lead the innovative new project to develop a new approach to study and manipulate single biomolecules with optical tweezer technology.

The project has now received a large grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)’s Physics of Life research scheme.

Optical tweezers – which are used to study proteins, biological molecular motors, DNA and the inner life of cells – use light to hold objects as small as a single nanoparticle in one place.

They use the unusual optical forces created by tightly focused laser beams to trap and manipulate particles, essentially acting as ‘microscopic hands’ for scientists.

While optical tweezer experiments have also allowed the direct measurement of pico-Newton forces that are exerted by individual motor proteins, they are currently not sensitive enough to resolve femto-Newton (fN) forces, and hence not all molecular forces can yet be investigated.

An important, but so far poorly understood example is the miniscule fN forces that are exerted by active enzymes when they are catalysing reactions in living systems.

The new research programme will develop a new, and much more sensitive, alternative optical tweezer technology. This will allow Prof Vollmer’s team to study and manipulate the molecular mechanics of nanomachines such as enzymes. The technology will lead into the development of next-generation diagnostic tools and sensor chips for biomedicine.

The project will be used to develop healthcare diagnostic tests for human fungal pathogen Candida albicans – which causes around 250,000 blood stream infections per year.

Professor Vollmer, who studies the fundamental mechanisms of life by looking in unprecedented detail at the biomolecules that make up all cells in the human body, said: “This UKRI funded Molecular Mechanics Initiative brings a cutting-edge research programme to the Living Systems Institute at the University of Exeter.

"The programme aims to achieve breakthroughs in how we detect, analyse, and manipulate molecules at the ultimate single-molecule level.

"My team will develop novel laser sensing and molecular mechanics analysis capabilities which will be at the forefront of new developments showing that the technique holds the key to the next generation of enabling analytical and healthcare technologies on sensor chips. Our approach will unravel nature's design principles for nanomachines, and will allow us to realise synthetic biomolecular machinery and designer enzymes in the longer term. “

More information about the research project can be found by visiting

Date: 4 July 2019