Dr Mark Leake wins British Biophysics Award

Dr Mark Leake, a Royal Society University Research Fellow who is jointly based in the Biochemistry and Physics Departments, has been announced as the winner of the 2010 Young Investigator Award for the British Biophysical Society.

Dr Leake in the Biochemistry Department with one of his bespoke microscopes

Dr Leake in the Biochemistry Department with one of his bespoke microscopes

The award is made once every two years to an early career research scientist in the UK and Ireland in recognition of their outstanding contribution to biophysics.

Dr Leake develops novel single molecule fluorescence imaging techniques to follow protein complexes in real-time in a living cell. His expertise is in the construction of microscopes from constituent optical parts and the development of the accompanying analytical tools. He collaborates with molecular biologists in the Biochemistry Department to study a range of biological systems.

The award marks Dr Leake's flagship paper in Nature, published in 2006 with Professor Judith Armitage in the Biochemistry Department, and the development of that work since.

"Our model molecular complex system was the flagellar rotary motor in bacteria that enables them to swim, " says Dr Leake. "We were able to count how many components went into that motor and also see components of that motor turnover in real-time."

This work has led onto other studies, most recently, with Dr Rodrigo Reyes-Lamothe and Professor David Sherratt in the department who studies DNA replication in bacteria.

"DNA replication presents an even bigger challenge in terms of the optics and the analysis," remarks Dr Leake. "This is because, unlike the systems I looked at previously - which are all integrated into the membrane - DNA replication is in the cytoplasm. It's a much more watery environment and everything moves a lot quicker. So the problem is how do you image faster but still get enough light to give you the information that you need?"

This led Dr Leake to develop a new fluorescence imaging technique in which all the light from the laser is squeezed into a very small area encompassing just a single cell. As a result, the exposure time can be cut to millisecond levels, enabling the researcher to follow very fast biological processes.

Dr Leake believes that his and other biophysics research in the University benefits from not only the plethora of good molecular biology labs in Oxford but also the presence of a number of relevant Doctoral Training Centres. These include the 'Life Sciences Interface' Centre, the 'Systems Biology' Centre and a new industrial-based Centre.

"These are very multidisciplinary," comments Dr Leake. "Much of the constructive collaborative projects are really seeded through these studentships. You'll have joint studentships which straddle departments, and they tend to be very good students."

The University of Oxford has played an active part in the development of modern biophysics since its beginnings around 50 years ago with the application of X-ray crystallography to study the structure of DNA and proteins. The British Biophysical Society will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary this year at a symposium in Cambridge. Dr Leake will have an opportunity to talk about his research at the meeting and will also be formally presented with his award by the Chair of the Society, Department of Biochemistry's Professor Anthony Watts.





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