Biophysical Society Newsletter | February 2017





Biophysicist in Profile LUKAS TAMM

Lukas Tamm grew up in Basel, Switzerland, a city located at the country’s border with France and Germany, and with its own place in science history. “Basel is where Friedrich Miescher first discovered DNA, which he called nuclein, from leucocytes in the mid-19 th century,” Tamm shares. Tamm’s father was an organic chemist working on the synthesis of natural products such as antibi- otics and glycosides that were used clinically for heart conditions. He co-directed the Institute of Organic Chemistry at the University of Basel and was dean of sciences, and later became president of the University, the oldest in Switzerland founded in 1460. His mother was a nurse who helped transform the home healthcare system in the city of Basel, which previously had been a collection of small church-related organizations but was con- verted into a larger, citywide foundation. Tamm had little exposure to science in high school. “Switzerland had tracked high schools, and I was in a track that offered a classical human- istic education: eight years of Latin, five years of ancient Greek, a few modern languages — English and Italian were optional after French — math, and some, but not much, science,” he says. “I did not like Latin, but I liked Greek because those authors wrote about exploring the world. I also liked math and was fascinated by the riches of biology.” Tamm was also a serious musician, and upon graduating was torn between pursuing a career in music or the sciences. “Although I played at a pretty high level, my cello teacher advised me against going into music because ‘it is so competi- tive if you want to play on the world stage,’” he says. “So, despite my underdeveloped science edu- cation, I decided to go into the sciences because I thought I might have a better shot at making a difference in something that combined physics and biology.” He did not know at that time that biophysics as a field existed, but was fascinated by the clarity and laws of physics and by the beauty and diversity of biology. Fortunately, Tamm began his under-

graduate studies at the University of Basel not long after the opening of its Biocenter, modeled after the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, United Kingdom. “The first two years were lots of hard-core physics, chemistry, and math classes, and I had a lot of catching up to do,” he says. “But, it was the third-year all-day integrated core courses in modern biochemis- try, biophysics, structural biology, genetics, cell and developmental biology, microbiology, and neurobiology, and that pioneer spirit of the early Biocenter that sold me on a career in the biosci- ences. I was simply fascinated with what could be discovered in these wide-open and still emerging fields. I knew then that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.” Following his undergraduate studies, he complet- ed a master’s thesis at Cornell University. He then returned to the Biocenter for his PhD thesis work with Joachim Seelig , who had just developed novel solid-state NMR [nuclear magnetic resonance] methods to look at protein-lipid interactions. “There was a huge debate going on about whether or not different boundary lipids existed around integral membrane proteins,” he explains, “and we characterized the structure and dynamics of those lipids in contact with cytochrome oxidase and the sarcoplasmic calcium pump.” Tamm conducted his postdoctoral work at Stanford University with Harden McConnell . His research centered on the development of sup- ported lipid bilayers as a new model system to study membrane protein and cell-cell interactions. “That’s when we also first discovered lipid do- mains in lipid monolayers at the air-water inter- face,” he says. “McConnell’s lab was truly inspir- ing and McConnell’s thinking was always ahead of its time. For example, he told me when I arrived, that I should try to detect single molecules. The ideas that he had about how to do this were not really feasible, and I could not come up with better ones, but this was in 1982, about a decade before anyone actually succeeded in detecting single molecules!”

Lukas Tamm

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