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The ‘Molecules of Life’ Hit the Big Screen

This award-winning researcher makes molecular movies, and his methods are helping solve medical mysteries around the world.


Sometimes a picture can’t fully describe the entire landscape that great science occupies. That’s only a snapshot, and the full movie is needed to capture how events unfold.

Lewis Kay, professor of molecular genetics, biochemistry and chemistry at the University of Toronto, is an award-winning researcher who looks at the molecular machinery of cells and how proteins move and change over time. Understanding protein interactions is key to understanding how things work in health, and how they can break down in disease.

In recognition of this work, Kay was awarded the 2018 Herzberg Gold Medal and a 2017 Canada Gairdner International Award, two of Canada’s most prestigious awards in science and engineering.

Proteins drive all kinds of activities in cells. They are the molecular machinery that perform tasks from transporting material into and around the cell, to repairing DNA damage, to providing organization and structure.

In carrying out their tasks, proteins are like the components of any well-oiled machine: constantly in motion, and interacting and changing in response to one another. It’s impossible to consider them in isolation without altering their behaviour.

To film his molecular movies, Kay’s research focuses on refining a method called biomolecular nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, the same technology behind MRI scans for medical imaging.

Notably, NMR allows researchers to visualize what protein molecules look like in their natural solution environments, and they can be tracked over time to see how they move and change shape, both of which influence their behaviour and function.

In particular, these methods have been used to study how protein structures change in neurodegeneration, diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease, to name a few. Kay shares his methods freely, and as a result they are widely used all over the world.

It’s a great example of the global impact that research can have once set in motion.

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.