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Crystallography, Evolution, and the Structure of Viruses

Published: Thursday, April 12, 2012
Last Updated: Thursday, April 12, 2012
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In this article, Michael Rossman accounts his journey from mathematician and physician through to crystallographer, with his ultimate ambition being the structural study of viruses.

Introduction

My undergraduate education in mathematics and physics was a good grounding for graduate studies in crystallographic studies of small organic molecules. As a postdoctoral fellow in Minnesota, I learned how to program an early electronic computer for crystallographic calculations. I then joined Max Perutz, excited to use my skills in the determination of the first protein structures. The results were even more fascinating than the development of techniques and provided inspiration for starting my own laboratory at Purdue University. My first studies on dehydrogenases established the conservation of nucleotide-binding structures. Having thus established myself as an independent scientist, I could start on my most cherished ambition of studying the structure of viruses. About a decade later, my laboratory had produced the structure of a small RNA plant virus and then, in another six years, the first structure of a human commoncold virus. Many more virus structures followed, but soon it became essential to supplement crystallography with electron microscopy to investigate viral assembly, viral infection of cells, and neutralization of viruses by antibodies. A major guide in all these studies was the discovery of evolution at the molecular level. The conservation of three-dimensional structure has been a recurring theme, from my experiences with MaxPerutz in the study of hemoglobin to the recognition of the conserved nucleotide-binding fold and to the recognition of the jelly roll fold in the capsid protein of a large variety of viruses.

This article was published in The Journal of Biological Chemistry and is free to access online.


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