Professor Frank Vollmer

Professor Frank Vollmer

Professor of Biophysics, Living Systems Institute

‘It is particularly exciting to be part of the LSI from day one, to work in a world-class environment that will attract the best minds, to find answers to fundamental scientific questions, and to develop biomedical approaches to better understand the operation and establishment of disease.’


Undertaking my PhD in physics and biology at the Rockefeller University, New York City, I specialize in biosensing. In my thesis I have pioneered optical technology to detect and study single biomolecules. I held several appointments at leading US institutions including, Instructor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School, before moving to the position of Research Group Leader at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light (DE). 

Highlights of my career to date:

I am very fortunate that I have had the opportunity of joining innovative and interdisciplinary research initiatives similar to the LSI on several occasions during my career to date. There is always great excitement and pioneering spirit involved when different researchers come together to address important scientific questions at a new institute, and particularly rich potential for discovery at research institutes that provide for the contact between the traditional disciplines. 

My first opportunity to join such an interdisciplinary research initiative was in 2004, right after completion of my PhD studies. I was one of the first recruits at the Rowland Institute at Harvard University. I joined on a newly established Rowland Junior Fellowship which allowed me to establish my own laboratory early in my career. Upon completion of my term at the Rowland Institute, I joined the Wyss Institute at Harvard University in 2009, just when it opened its doors to develop bioinspired materials and devices that will transform medicine and create a more sustainable world. In 2010, I accepted the position of independent group leader at the newly minted Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light in Germany. There, I vigorously continued my efforts in single molecule biosensing. During this time I introduced the novel idea of using plasmonic nanoparticles to boost the micro-resonator frequency shift. In this fashion, I have succeeded to resolve the fleeting interaction kinetics between a molecule and its receptor.

What excites me most about joining the LSI? 

LSI’s broad view of science and potential of discovery in the contact between traditional disciplines. I am very excited to, once again, have the opportunity of joining an exciting new research initiative at the LSI, as one of its first recruits. 

The interdisciplinary environment provided by the LSI, and the development of high-specification technologies, is also an area that I am particularly excited about. 

The research work I will be undertaking in the LSI:

Have you ever wondered about how our bodies might work at the nanoscale, a scale at which we are composed of individual biomolecules? At the nanoscale, where individual biomolecules such as enzymes take on the role of nano-machines, and where parts of a protein move similar to the pistons of an engine, how can one observe and analyse such intricate systems? My research aims to address these questions. I investigate the inner workings of enzymes and other nano-machines with state-of-the-art biosensors which are built using nanotechnology and nanophotonics. 

I am developing the first optical technique that is capable of directly monitoring structural changes within individual proteins. The technique is capable of detecting changes in the shape of biomolecules. Developing such capability is a breakthrough in optical detection technology. Currently available techniques can only track the motion of parts of a protein when the protein is chemically modified, i.e. attached to a chemical label. Without the need of a label, my optical technique will provide a universal tool for the unabated exploration of structural dynamics and shape-changes in individual proteins. 

Structural dynamics in proteins give rise to particular functions such as metabolism, signaling, energy harvesting, power strokes, and many more. They constitute the basis for living matter in cells and organisms. Investigating these structural dynamics is of fundamental interest and will deliver novel approaches to nanomedicine. My research will examine how aberrant protein dynamics trigger disease and ultimately investigate novel remedies by testing molecular medicines.

This science will contribute towards refined clinical diagnostic and fundamental biomedical research. It will establish the cornerstone for an optical biosensor technology that is capable of harnessing the extreme speed, selectivity and specificity of the biological nanoworld, for example in real-time single DNA molecule sequencing devices.

Something about me that you can’t google! 

I enjoy running half marathons, rowing and Dartmoor walks. I went to primary school in South Africa.