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Biophysics History

Biophysics at the University of Michigan has had a long history, having a start in the Department of Physics in the 1930s and culminating in the present independent unit in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts (LSA). Despite an uneven path, the continuing commitment of interested faculty to this emerging discipline has brought about the present strong University support for the undergraduate concentration as well as the graduate program in this field.

The acquisition of an electron microscope in Physics in ~1935 led Robley Williams to develop its use with his invention of the metal shadow-casting technique for visualizing and measuring exact dimensions of viruses. A Rackham Ph.D. program was established in 1949, and although the Regents also approved the creation of a Department of Biophysics in 1950 they rescinded this decision when Williams resigned to go to Berkeley. However, biophysical research (and an undergraduate concentration) continued in Physics: in 1948 Harrison Randall (at age 78!) started studying viruses and bacilli by infrared (IR) spectroscopy; in 1949 Gordon Sutherland initiated a program to analyze IR spectra and structure of proteins; in the early 1950s Cyrus Levinthal began experiments that culminated in his elegant radioisotope demonstration of the semi-conservative nature of DNA replication. Summer symposia enhanced the excitement over ongoing developments: in 1951, with Luria, Oncley, Sutherland, Doty, Pollard, and Delbruck; in 1956, with Watson, Crick, Rich, Harker, Sutherland, Chargaff, Levinthal, Stent, Benzer, Jacob, Lederberg, Pollard, Roberts, Spiegelman, Novick, and Haurowitz.

In the meantime, efforts were continuing to institutionalize a viable University commitment to this field. In 1955 a Biophysics Research Center was established, with Sutherland as its Director. His departure the following year (as well as that of Levinthal), and the inability of the University to demonstrate tangible support for biophysics to NIH, finally led the Regents in 1960 to create the Biophysics Research Division (BRD) with its own laboratories in the newly formed Institute of Science and Technology (IST) on North Campus. (Interestingly, the Biophysical Society was founded in 1958 and the Biophysical Journal in 1960.) An international search led to  the appointment in 1962 of J. Lawrence Oncley (then President of the Biophysical Society) as its Director, and the award in 1964 of an NIH Training Grant heralded the beginning of the modern era of biophysics training and research at Michigan.

Responding to Oncley’s interests, early research in BRD focused on protein structure and properties. Physical methods were emphasized: experimental techniques such as x-ray diffraction, various spectroscopies (including optical, IR, and Raman; circular dichroism; electron paramagnetic resonance), dielectric studies, and ultracentrifugation; and a range of theoretical and computational approaches, enhanced by the extended visit of G. N. Ramachandran. The creation in 1985 of a University Program in Protein Structure and Design (with Samuel Krimm as Director) enabled the hiring of additional faculty, with specialization in NMR and fluorescence spectroscopies as well as electron microscopy (a circle closed!). Systems spanned the range from the molecular to the cellular, with membranes thus also playing an important research role. The move of the unit in 1993 to the Chemistry building on Central Campus resulted in further expansion of the scope of research areas. BRD’s establishment in 2007 as LSA Biophysics testifies to the present health and future vigor of this discipline at Michigan.