Principal Investigator Benjamin Engel
Structural Cell Biology
Cells accomplish the biochemical reactions of life by concentrating their proteins into a variety of subcellular compartments called organelles. Our group explores the relationship between the form of the organelle and the function of its resident macromolecules. How does organelle architecture direct molecular function, and reciprocally, how do macromolecules sculpt and shape organelles?
To investigate these questions, our group uses cryo-electron tomography (cryo-ET) to directly visualize macromolecules “in situ”, within the native cellular environment. First, we rapidly freeze the cells in non-crystalline vitreous ice, preserving them in a state of suspended animation. Next, we use a focused ion beam to thin the cells, followed by cryo-ET to acquire 3D images (called tomograms) of the native cellular interior with molecular resolution. These tomograms enable us to solve molecular structures directly within the cell, at sufficient resolution to distinguish different conformational states and interaction partners. We then map these structures back into the cellular volume with nanometer precision, allowing us to analyze molecular organization within the cell at the scale of single molecules.
While we are broadly interested in all questions of cellular architecture, we concentrate on two topics:
1) How does cellular architecture impact human health? Here, we investigate how diseases alter cellular compartments including the mitochondrion (the cell’s power plant), the cilium (the cell’s signaling antenna), and the Golgi (the cell’s post office).
2) How does cellular architecture respond to the Earth’s changing environment? Here, we examine how the chloroplast (the cell’s solar panel) adapts to environmental stresses caused by climate change. We study a wide range of photosynthetic organisms and are particularly interested in marine algae, which fix about half of the Earth’s CO2.
For a full description of our research, please see our group website:
Principal Investigator, Structural Cell Biology
Ben was trained as a Cell Biologist at UC San Francisco, and later was immersed in Structural Biology as a postdoc and project leader at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry. Combining these backgrounds, Ben and his team use in situ cryo-electron tomography to capture a structural view of cell biology. This technique directly images the structures of molecular complexes within the native cellular environment, revealing the architecture of the cell with exquisite detail.
Positions and Career
Principal Investigator, Helmholtz Pioneer Campus
Postdoc (Project Leader starting 2015), Wolfgang Baumeister, MPI of Biochemistry We are using focused ion beam milling and cryo-electron tomography to study the in situ structural biology of macromolecules within native-state frozen cellular environments.
Visiting Scientist, Ritsu Kamiya, University of Tokyo I used electron microscopy to characterize a mutant strain isolated in my graduate studies.
Graduate Student, Wallace Marshall, UC San Francisco I studied the relationship between intraflagellar transport and flagellar length control.
Research Associate, Carolyn Larabell, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory I studied cellular defense mechanisms during the early stages of breast cancer metastasis.
Student Intern, Advanced Light Source, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Ph.D. Cell Biology
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SAN FRANCISCO
B.A. Molecular and Cell Biology
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY
Funding and Awards
DFG Grant FOR2092: Biogenesis of Thylakoid Membranes, MPI of Biochemistry
Junior Research Award, MPI of Biochemistry
Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Research Fellowship, MPI of Biochemistry
NSF East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes (EAPSI) Fellowship, University of Tokyo
Genentech Graduate Fellowship, UC San Francisco
Departmental Honors, Molecular and Cell Biology, UC Berkeley
Mentorship and Teaching
Supervisor, graduate students Sahradha Albert, Tilak Gupta, Hugo van den Hoek, Luis Kuhn Cuellar, and Chia-Wei Lee; and postdocs Wojciech Wietrzynski and Anna Rast
Instructor, Advanced Workshop on Cryo-Electron Tomography; Vienna, Austria
Research Mentor and Classroom Teacher, UC San Francisco Science and Education Partnership
Current Third Party Funding
DFG – Forschungsgruppe FOR2092
Rast A, Schaffer M, Albert S, Wan W, Pfeffer S, Beck F, Plitzko JM, Nickelsen J, Engel BD* (2019). Nature Plants. 5: 436-446.More Details
Schuller JM, Birrell JA, Tanaka H, Konuma T, Wulfhorst H, Cox N, Schuller SK, Thiemann J, Lubitz W, Sétif P, Ikegami T, Engel BD, Kurisu G, Nowaczyk MM (2019). Science. 363:257-260.More Details
Kovtun O, Leneva N, Bykov YS, Ariotti N, Teasdale RD, Schaffer M, Engel BD, Owen DJ, Briggs JAB, Collins BM (2018). Nature. 561: 561-564.More Details
Delarue M, Brittingham GP, Pfeffer S, Surovtsev IV, Pinglay S, Kennedy KJ, Schaffer M, Gutierrez JI, Sang D, Poterewicz G, Chung JK, Plitzko JM, Groves JT, Jacobs-Wagner C, Engel BD*, Holt LJ (2018). Cell. 174: 338-349.e320.More Details
Mosalaganti S, Kosinski J, Albert S, Schaffer M, Strenkert D, Salomé PA, Merchant SS, Plitzko JM, Baumeister W, Engel BD*, Beck M (2018). Nature Communications. 9: 2361More Details
Albert S, Schaffer M, Beck F, Mosalaganti S, Asano S, Thomas HF, Plitzko JM, Beck M, Baumeister W, Engel BD* (2017). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. 114: 13726-13731More Details
Bykov YS, Schaffer M, Dodonova SO, Albert S, Plitzko JM, Baumeister W, Engel BD*, Briggs JAG (2017). eLife. 6: e32493.More Details
Freeman Rosenzweig ES, Xu B, Kuhn Cuellar L, Martinez-Sanchez A, Schaffer M, Strauss M, Cartwright HN, Ronceray P, Plitzko JM, Förster F, Wingreen NS, Engel BD*, Mackinder LCM, Jonikas MC (2017). Cell. 171: 148-162.e19.More Details
Pfeffer S, Dudek J, Schaffer M, Ng BG, Albert S, Plitzko JM, Baumeister W, Zimmermann R, Freeze HH, Engel BD*, Förster F (2017).Nature Communications. 8: 14516.
Engel BD*, Schaffer M, Albert S, Asano S, Plitzko JM, Baumeister W (2015). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. 112: 11264-11269.More Details
Engel BD*, Schaffer M, Cuellar LK, Villa E, Plitzko JM, Baumeister W (2015). eLife. 4: e04889.More Details
Helmholtz Pioneer Campus
Helmholtz Zentrum München
Deutsches Forschungszentrum für Gesundheit und Umwelt (GmbH)
Ingolstädter Landstr. 1