The Executive Board has appointed Lukas Kapitein to the position of Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biophysics at the Faculty of Science’s Department of Biology. Kapitein studies the architecture and dynamics of cells, with a particular focus on neurons: how do they obtain and maintain their complicated form? By using concepts and techniques from the field of physics, his group aims to unravel basic principles of cellular biology.
What is Kapitein, originally a physicist, doing at the Department of Biology? “In biology, we use physics in two different ways”, he explains. “On the one hand, many important techniques are based on the principles of physics. For example, my group is specialised in advanced light microscopy, which we use to create high-resolution videos of what specific proteins do in living cells. But you can also use physics to understand complex biological processes based on the underlying fundamental principles, which you can then express in mathematical models. The advantage to these models is that you can often derive precise predictions from them, which you can then use to test the model.”
Transport in neurons
Instead of focusing on simple cells in his work, Kapitein studies the most complex cells possible: neurons. These cells have sophisticated forms, and are so large that they need special transport systems in order to bring all of the components to the right place in the cell. This is facilitated by the cytoskeleton, a mechanical network of protein filaments that give the cells their shape and rigidity, and along which special motor molecules can move.
Kapitein’s group is specialised in visualizing the cytoskeleton and in manipulating the motor molecules in a controlled manner in order to understand how they work in the cell. “That gives us more and more insight into the cell’s road map and traffic rules. Eventually, I want to understand how the combined activity of vast numbers of different tiny molecules can lead to a durable, orderly system that is thousands of times larger than the individual building blocks”, says Kapitein.