As a continual celebration of the biophysics week, which was held from 12th to 18th March, we have asked group leaders about their experiences with biophysics. Today, let me introduce Professor Malcolm Irving, a professor of biophysics specialised in the study of skeletal muscle contraction using the fluorescence and X-ray techniques he has developed (click here to find out more about his research).
Professor Malcolm Irving
1. What got you interested in biophysics? I did a Physics undergraduate degree, but during that time got interested in biology through friends who were studying biology and medicine. I knew almost nothing about biology at first, but I wanted to make a career in research, and biology seemed to have lots of fascinating and unanswered questions. I thought that those questions might be amenable to the methods and concept of physics, although I was not really aware that there was a field called biophysics at the time.
2. Explain your area of research in two sentences. I’m interested in how the contraction of skeletal and heart muscle are regulated. Recently it became clear that the established model for this, which focuses on a transient increase in intracellular calcium, is only part of the story, and that the strength and duration of muscle contraction in health and disease are largely controlled by other mechanisms, which we are trying to uncover.
3. Who is your favourite biophysicist? It has to be Andrew Huxley, although I am aware that Susan Cox (Click here to check out her interview!) made the same choice. Because I worked on muscle contraction, I was lucky enough to know him. He worked out how nerve conduction works (research for which he won the Nobel Prize), then almost immediately after writing up the nerve papers, switched to research on muscle, on which he also made fundamental discoveries. He once described biophysics as ‘the interesting bits of physiology’. His work was characterised by a remarkable combination of technical and conceptual innovation.
4. What is your favourite biophysical technique? I’ll choose an unusual one that is useful for studying the organisation and function of muscle proteins – X-ray fibre diffraction*. Because muscle is so highly ordered on a scale of tens of nanometers it produces an X-ray diffraction pattern containing lots of structural information. With a very intense X-ray source, such as provided by a synchrotron, the diffraction pattern can be recorded from a single muscle cell with millisecond time resolution, allowing the changes in protein structure to be measured in the native cellular environment.
*X-ray fibre diffraction – This is a technique that involves shining an X-ray beam to fibrous material, which will diffract at different angles and a specific pattern will be generated. Scientists can then work out the structure of that particular molecule using those patterns.
5. Can you give us an example of biophysics applied in our daily lives? The direct value of biophysics is probably more in providing understanding of biological mechanisms, but that understanding can have a downstream effect on daily life. The classic and local example is the X-ray fibre diffraction experiments of Franklin, Wilkins and colleagues that led to the double helix model of the structure of DNA and the molecular mechanism of heredity. Although it took a huge amount of subsequent research to get to the current world of molecular genetics and genomic medicine, giving us earlier, more accurate diagnosis of disease and better targeted treatments, the discovery of the structure of DNA was an essential early step on that pathway.