Contrary to what most people think, proteins are much more than protein bars, milk and cheese.

Proteins enable living cells to operate, and they are the basic building blocks for life, yet little is known about the way they function. However, a team of nine UCSB researchers, who were awarded $1.75 million by the W.M. Keck Foundation last December, has set out to discover the inner workings of this mystery. Led by Institute for Quantum and Complex Dynamics Director Mark Sherwin, the group hopes to film these large amino acid-based molecules and gain knowledge from their motion and dynamic lifestyle within a three-year period.

The term “filming” may appear misleading, as researchers will not capture successive images of proteins. Instead, the scientists will measure the movements and then map them using UCSB’s Free Electron Laser, a complicated device that studies the motion of proteins that is located in UCSB’s Terahertz Dynamics Laboratory. The laser passes electrons through a magnetic field at very high speeds, similar to how a particle accelerator works.

Sherwin said the team seeks to study how the proteins work, rather than what they do.

“As far as what we are doing, there is a great distinction between function and the mechanism of a protein,” Sherwin said. “The function of many proteins is already known. For example, hemoglobin transports oxygen from your lungs to your cells. The question that we are addressing is: How does a protein do that? We can think of a protein as a machine, and we know what the machine does and what it looks like to some extent, but we’ve never seen the machine in operation.”

Sherwin said his team must use highly advanced technology, such as the free electron laser, because their methods for studying proteins require it.

“We need to use [the free electron laser] because what we’re doing is we’re using a technique called electron spin resonance,” he said.

In electron spin resonance, Sherwin said scientists will measure the oscillations of electrons – how often they fluctuate – at high frequencies. One function of proteins is to pump electrons over barriers, and by measuring electron oscillations, researchers can calculate how a protein moves, he said. This in turn will allow scientists to learn basic information of how a protein functions, which is considered fundamental research, he said.

“One of the greatest discoveries of biology was DNA, the alphabet of life,” Sherwin said. “And it led to a lot of other discoveries, but it was just important knowledge.”

From a practical manner, Sherwin said conducting research on proteins could reveal endless possibilities in terms of medical and energy-dependent studies and experiments. For example, he said by understanding how a protein functions, scientists can design new job-specific proteins, such as ones that can convert sunlight into useful energy.

Biochemistry professor and team member Song-I Han said UCSB was chosen to host this project because of its highly experienced team of researchers along with the unique resources available on campus.

“There are at least two reasons why Santa Barbara was chosen,” Han said. “One is the free electron laser capability. The second is the unique group of people that are here. In order to complete this protein dynamic study, you need a very interdisciplinary team of people, because you need a lot of expertise in a wide range of fields.”

The M.K. Keck Foundation, named after William Myron Keck, was established in 1954 as a philanthropic organization. Based in Los Angeles, the foundation focuses its awards and grants on advancing various fields of science, mainly medical research and engineering.