The Max Planck Institute of Biophysics focuses, above all, on investigating the structure and function of proteins that are embedded in cellular membranes. These membrane proteins act either as channel and transport proteins for the exchange of material across a membrane, or antenna molecules that transmit signals from the local environment into the cell’s interior, e.g., the olfactory (smell) receptors located in the mucous membrane of the nose. Scientists at the Institute use electron microscopes and X-rays to determine the spatial structure of these proteins. The protein’s function is characterised by electrophysiology, a technique which measures the electric currents and voltages generated when electrically-charged atoms (ions) flow through channel proteins. In addition, the techniques of molecular biology and genetic engineering assist researchers to understand how the olfactory system can recognise countless smells using a relatively small number of membrane proteins.
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