Tajkhorshid Has Come a Long Way in a Short Time

Emad Tajkhorshid began his full-time career at the Beckman Institute as a postdoctoral researcher with the Theoretical and Computational Biophysics group in 2000, but within the past year has earned a position as a tenure-track professor at the University of Illinois and started his own research group.

Emad Tajkhorshid began his full-time career at the Beckman Institute as a postdoctoral researcher with the Theoretical and Computational Biophysics group in 2000, but within the past year has earned a position as a tenure-track professor at the University of Illinois and started his own research group.

"I guess I am obsessed with understanding how molecules do their job, how proteins function." - Emad Tajkhorshid

Tajkhorshid's research is in the area of computational biology, where his group is doing pioneering research into the biophysics of cellular membranes. He is building a research group from the ground up, so any promising future graduate students who are interested should take note, but with this word of caution: they will have to share the group director's passion for his work.

"I guess I am obsessed with understanding how molecules do their job, how proteins function," Tajkhorshid said. "I really want to understand at the level of atoms how a single mutation in a protein can affect the structure and sometimes perturb the function. I really want to understand how it works in these molecular machines."

And Tajkhorshid wants his students to feel the same way.

"This is what I tell my students: if you're not in love with understanding how these molecules, these single atoms come together and accomplish something at the level of biology, then you're in the wrong business, the wrong department," he said. "That's really my passion."

Tajkhorshid, an assistant professor of Biochemistry, Pharmacology, and Biophysics in the Department of Biochemistry and at the College of Medicine, is a native of Iran whose Ph.D. is in pharmacology, but a research stint at the German Cancer Research Institute in Heidelberg got him started on a path that earned him a second Ph.D. in biophysics. It was this work that led him to cross paths with Klaus Schulten, director of the TCB group, which is considered one of the premier resources in the world for developing and using computational tools for understanding biological structure and function.

After a couple of shorter, months-long collaborations with TCB, Tajkhorshid joined the group full-time in 2000 as an assistant director and immediately began making an impact. In 2002 Tajkhorshid and Schulten published a groundbreaking article in Science on water transport through membrane channels, while an image of that process that Tajkhorshid produced won a coveted national award and an accompanying video was used by the Nobel Foundation to illustrate the work of a Nobel Prize winner. Tajkhorshid said that project, done with software developed at TCB, was able to describe a biological process in a way that wasn't possible without molecular dynamics simulations.

"We could really make a very strong case by showing something that couldn't even be imagined before our simulations," he said. "There were many, many experiments done on the system but nobody could even think about a possibility of such a delicate mechanism of selectivity in water channels. So that was a really important contribution not only for my career, but also for computational methodologies in general."

Tajkhorshid credits TCB programmers for giving researchers the ability to customize programs that fit the needs of their research work and credits Schulten for giving him direction.

"That's also something that I owe to Klaus to a large extent because he emphasizes this (point) very much in his group: we are making these tools to, at the end of the day, make discoveries about how biology works," Tajkhorshid said. "I know many other groups develop tools but in terms of applying them to real problems, getting something out of it, they don't even come close to TCB."

Now Tajkhorshid has his own group which has a focus on his current research line involving membrane proteins and events associated with cellular membranes. Tajkhorshid said most of his efforts are concentrated on transport of materials such as ions, nutrients, and waste materials across a membrane, a process that if understood will produce insights crucial for research into genomics, medicine, and science in general.

It's a line of inquiry that Tajkhorshid expects will keep him, and his students, doing research for a long time to come.

"There are many developments there and more are coming out (involving) structures of proteins inside the membrane," he said. "Understanding the mechanism of their selective function is going to keep us busy for at least 20 to 30 years."

This article is part of the Winter 2008 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.