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Vol. LXVI, No. 10
May 9, 2014

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Biophysicist Ha Eavesdrops on Single Molecular Conversations
Dr. Taekjip Ha spoke at NIH on Apr. 9.

Dr. Taekjip Ha spoke at NIH on Apr. 9.

What you want, when you attend a lecture by a biophysicist, is the leavening effect of humor, especially when the crucial tool under discussion is FRET, or fluorescence resonance energy transfer. Dr. Taekjip Ha’s Wednesday Afternoon Lecture on Apr. 9 met that requirement and then some.

Ha, an HHMI investigator and professor in the department of biophysics and chemical biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is a pioneer in the field of single-molecule dynamics and single-molecule FRET. His lab has recently developed a tool that enables direct visualization of individual cellular protein complexes.

His list of “firsts” in experimental biological physics, available in a handout outside Masur Auditorium, had members of the audience remarking about his achievements before he began speaking: first detection of FRET between two single molecules; first observation of “quantum jumps” of single molecules at room temperature; first detection of the rotation of single molecules.

His other first, at least before an NIH audience, was illustrating DNA mismatch repair by showing a movie titled “The Power of Speed Dating,” set to a pop tune by artist Coolio.

Ha, whose postdoctoral advisor at Stanford University was Nobel laureate Dr. Steven Chu, repeatedly used popular culture references to ground and illustrate his edge-cutting science.

He suggested that his interest in DNA repair is founded in harsh evidence. “The DNA in our body undergoes insults every day,” he said. “All I have to do is look in the mirror every morning to realize I’m getting older.”

Human DNA replenishes so relentlessly that, in a lifetime, Ha said, we make enough to stretch a distance equal to one light year.

A common form of DNA mismatch repair is known as homologous recombination. “If DNA could have sex, this would be it,” Ha noted. When DNA repair can be illustrated by a short film showing lengths of DNA “finding a soulmate,” biophysics becomes more approachable.

Ha’s metaphor for how DNA wraps around a protein core was custom-made for sports fans: “It’s like the seams on a baseball or tennis ball.”

His illustration of FRET technology itself became clearer when he set an animation of the process to Psy’s internationally popular dance tune Gangnam Style.

And what else conveys the concept of optical trapping of single molecules better than a pair of chopsticks?

While it helps to know in advance what reptation is and what kymograms are (if for Scrabble points if nothing else), you can watch the full lecture at

It may turn out that the stem of STEM education is Ha’s gift of metaphor and affable sense of humor. When science reaches this far over the podium to be understood, it’s bound to attract adherents.—Rich McManus

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