Tom Perkins Wins 2017 Governor’s Award

Published: 08-28-2017
Tom Perkins in the AFM lab. Credit: Brad Baxley, JILA   The Perkins group revolutionary cantilever (left) outperforms the competition in measuring the folding and unfolding of a biomolecule. Credit: The Perkins group and Steve Burrows, JILA

Fellow Tom Perkins has won a 2017 Governor’s Award for High-Impact Research. Perkins will receive the award from Governor John Hickenlooper at an event sponsored by the CO-LABS consortium at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science on October 5, 2017. This year’s ninth annual event will honor Colorado’s top scientists and engineers for projects having a significant impact on society.

“The projects in this year’s CO-LABS High-Impact Awards spotlight what makes Colorado a leader in innovation,” said Governor John Hickenlooper. “It’s terrific to see research advance its partnerships with the private sector. I congratulate the scientific teams for their groundbreaking work and am excited to see the mark they will leave on our state and society as a whole.”

For his part, Perkins said, “I’m delighted to see the Governor and CO-LABS celebrating the diversity of excellent science in Colorado.”

Perkins is being recognized for work described as New twists in the molecules of life. In a decade long project, Perkins developed powerful new tools to measure and study individual biomolecules. He then partnered with the biotech industry to develop tools to improve the measurement and understanding of the structure and function of single proteins and nucleic acids, which play key roles in the biophysics and biochemistry of life. Amazingly, Perkins’ new tools can probe these key biomolecules in real time and under real world conditions.

Starting with an ordinary atomic-force microscope (AFM), Perkins painstakingly modified the AFM cantilevers to make the world’s most precise measurements of the structural components of individual proteins and nucleic acids. Today, he watches these large, complex molecules fold and unfold as they perform normal biological functions. He accomplishes all this in the wet, warm environment of living cells. His new AFM technology can completely analyze the folding and unfolding of a biomolecule in the laboratory in 2–3 days. Without the new AFM technology, this process used to take months of work.

As part of his effort to create better instruments for studying biomolecules, Perkins worked with instrument makers and pharmaceutical/biotech companies to apply his unique AFM technology to making ultraprecise measurements of the real-time folding and unfolding of individual biomolecules. These collaborative experiments are expected to impact medical diagnostics and treatments as well as speeding up the progress of fundamental biomedical and biological research.

Perkins has transferred his new technology through invents and patents, widely cited scientific publications, direct collaborations with industry, and by training young scientists who have built upon his work at AFM and biotech companies.