Bringing Biology to Light: Harvard welcomes Max Prigozhin

December 5, 2019
Prigozhin lab Harvard

If you could see anything in the world, what would it be? For many biologists, the answer would be: us, in high resolution and full technicolor.

The human body is composed of trillions of cells, each of which is composed of trillions of molecules. Unfortunately, most of these molecules – lipids, sugars, DNA, proteins – are too small to see, even with the world’s most powerful microscopes. As a consequence, the molecular processes that give rise to life remain largely unseen.

Harvard’s newest faculty member is trying to change that.

“I invent techniques to peer into the blind spots of biology,” says Max Prigozhin, Assistant Professor of Molecular & Cellular Biology and of Applied Physics. “Things that are too small to see, things that are too fast to capture, those interest me. I spend all my time dreaming up new technologies that could let us finally watch biology in action.”

“The last century witnessed an unbelievable explosion in the biological sciences,” says Queenan. “But, honestly, we’ve only just scratched the surface. The vast majority of cellular processes have never been seen by human eyes. We think Max can change that.”

Prigozhin joins the Departments of Molecular & Cellular Biology and of Applied Physics from Stanford, where he was a postdoctoral fellow with Steven Chu, Nobel laureate in Physics and former Secretary of Energy. “Max showed up for his interview with recommendations from two Nobel laureates – one in Physics and one in Chemistry,” says Queenan. “Obviously he had to be spectacular himself, but it’s not a bad way to get your foot in the door.”

At Stanford, Prigozhin developed a technique that uses electrons to generate multicolor biological images with nanoscale spatial resolution. “Certain materials, if you fire electrons at them, will shine. They will emit light,” says Prigozhin. “This phenomenon, called cathodoluminescence, is the basis of that imaging technique.”

Prigozhin figured out how to grow different types of nanocrystals that would emit light of different colors after being excited by the same electron beam. Then, inspired by his work with Brian Kobilka, Nobel laureate in Chemistry, Prigozhin decided to deploy this rainbow imaging technique towards biology. His lab is now revealing the signaling cascades orchestrated by a class of proteins known as G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs).

“Roughly one-third of all FDA-approved drugs target GPCRs,” says Prigozhin. “But GPCR signaling cascades are extremely complex. We could make much better, more specific, safer medications if we could see exactly which parts of the cascades are being acted on by drugs.”

“Max is truly off-scale,” says Sharad Ramanathan, Llura and Gordon Gund Professor of Neurosciences and of Molecular & Cellular Biology and professor of Applied Physics and Stem Cell & Regenerative Biology. “His work is an elegant integration of physics, chemistry, engineering, and biology. We couldn’t be more thrilled to have him as a colleague and as a member of our Quantitative Biology Initiative.”

“Max is our first official hire through the Quantitative Biology Initiative,” says Vinny Manoharan, the Wagner Family Professor of Chemical Engineering and Professor of Physics at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences who co-directs the QBio Initiative with Ramanathan. “He’s exactly what we wanted to find: someone who seamlessly crosses academic and technical boundaries because at the end of the day all that matters is answering the question: how do living things work?”

“I can’t imagine building my research program in a better place,” says Prigozhin. “Everyone I have encountered – all the deans, faculty, students, and staff – have been so supportive and enthusiastic. Now all that’s left to do is the impossible. We’ve got to see what’s never been seen before, in full technicolor.”