among more complex and highly disordered biological complexes (for example, the immunological and neuronal synapses that mediate cell-cell communication). Elucidation of the molecular details of the structure and dynamics of such noncrystalline supramolecular complexes requires continual advancement in the development of techniques to solve these biological problems. The techniques should also apply equally well to the broader class of man-made biomolecular materials.

The new experimental probes of biomolecular materials are expected to have a major impact on future science and technology, including imaging methods based on novel optical and electron microscopic techniques, new synchrotrons, and X-ray free electron lasers, which provide ultrashort and extremely intense pulses. There are significant synergistic advances in the development of instrumentation to probe the physical, chemical, structural, and dynamical behavior of individual molecules, so-called “single-molecule biophysics.”

It must be emphasized that biomolecular materials are naturally complex, often containing many components, inhomogeneous characteristics, and fluctuations. These features make it difficult to intuit principles from experimental observations alone. Thus it is important to combine experimental techniques that provide crucial observations with powerful numerical simulations and insightful analytical modeling to elucidate the mechanisms underlying biomolecular processes. Theory and computation can be critical to the discovery and design process because they can be used to predict the consequences of different mechanistic hypotheses, interpret experimental results, and examine alternative design motifs for biomaterials.

Some of the potential advances to be achieved from next-generation experimental tools and computational methods inspire research efforts. Imagine that one could …

  • View cells in atomic to molecular detail and at a time resolution of milliseconds, appropriate to observe the events during neuronal synaptic transmission or chromosome replication.

  • Measure the forces and motions of nanobiomachines directly and on the millisecond to microsecond timescale.

  • Determine the sequence of an individual DNA molecule, providing the ultimate sensitivity for forensic purposes or diagnosing inherited disease.

  • Understand how biological machines conquer the chaotic and crowded conditions of the cell.

  • Use principles of biological recognition to design new molecular interactions ab initio.

  • Predict how molecules with a specific sequence of monomers will adopt a specific conformation and self-assemble into precise supramolecular structures.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement