Researcher Profile

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Peter Tieleman

University of Calgary

Movies starring molecules give insight into health and disease

If you remember your high school biology, you know a cell is surrounded by a semi-permeable layer that lets in nutrients, lets out waste and controls the flow of chemical signals. What you may not know is that cell membranes are made up of thousands of different types of lipids and proteins whose complex interactions are essential for life and health.

Figuring out what makes for a healthy interaction and what could lead to disease has been hard to do until recently. Experiments designed to peer into this nano-scale world of shifting of lipids and proteins produce snapshots that are hard to piece together. In other words, experiments can’t give a complete picture.

That’s why University of Calgary biochemist Peter Tieleman is developing models and algorithms to accurately simulate fluctuating lipid-protein interactions. With the help of advanced research computing, he mimics their behaviour — how they move, interact, and shape the membrane to carry out biological functions.

“We create a movie and can see every single atom and how they’re interacting over time scales from femtoseconds to milliseconds,” says Tieleman. “We need pretty intense CPU power for this.”

He also needs robust computing networks for transferring large amounts of data to and from collaborators in other parts of the world.

By sharing his simulations, Tieleman hopes to play an important role in some of the most pressing biological challenges of our time. That includes designing polymers that interact with cell membranes to promote wound healing, and building artificial plant-like membranes full of proteins that convert sunlight into energy.