Ville Kaila
Ville Kaila, Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics. Photo: Markus Marcetic © Knut och Alice Wallenbergs Stiftelse/Kungl. Vetenskapsakademien.

“All cells need energy to work; today we know what their complex protein machineries look like at the molecular level. But there are still gaps in the knowledge about how the structure at atomic level can be linked to biological function,” says Ville Kaila, who recently moved from Munich’s technical university to Stockholm University and the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics.

To understand on a deeper level how cells convert energy, he and his research group are mapping life’s energy-generating proteins in the smallest detail. The research is multidisciplinary and the researchers are chemists, physicists and biologists; some of them are experimentalists and others are pure theorists. The aim is to be able to put artificial systems together, systems that function in the same way as living cells. The idea is that if researchers learn to mimic the processes in nature, they can better understand their molecular principle of function. This is pure basic research – understanding how something works – but by extension, the results can be used to create sustainable energy technologies such as solar fuels and to understand diseases in which cellular respiration is damaged such as diabetes, cancer and Parkinson’s disease as well as normal aging.

“It is exciting, but difficult, to combine different methods from different research disciplines. Another challenge is to get everyone to speak the same language”, Ville Kaila says.

“This is also a demanding and complicated project that requires resources to build up a biochemistry lab and large calculation clusters. Thanks to my Wallenberg Academy Fellowship, it will be possible for me to focus on the research for a longer period of time – and be able to take in and participate in developing young researchers.”