Less than a decade ago, UW researchers began to gather and assemble the components of a powerful, advanced imaging technology called cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) that would allow them to observe the structures of some of the tiniest building blocks of life. In 2021, they realized their vision as the Department of Biochemistry launched the Cryo-Electron Microscopy Research Center (CEMRC).
Contributions for the $17.5 million project came from across campus, including the Department of Biochemistry, Morgridge Institute for Research, Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education, School of Medicine and Public Health, UW Carbone Cancer Center, Department of Neuroscience, and Department of Biomolecular Chemistry. To augment that shared investment, biochemistry alum Daniel Klessig BS’71 is providing financial support for scientists conducting research at the CEMRC.
“One of the reasons I became so excited as an undergraduate at UW–Madison about molecular biology is that it gave one the ability to alter genes and thus figure out what the encoded proteins do,” says Klessig, who supports research and professorships at several institutions to advance his field. “Cryo-EM gives one another level of molecular clarity by being able to actually see where and how those proteins fit in a large biological structure. You can now look at very large molecular complexes and see the working parts.”
Cryo-EM uses ultra-cold temperatures to capture detailed information about the smallest components and interactions in living cells, viruses, and more. The CEMRC provides technical assistance, instrumentation, training, and access to this advanced technology for researchers at UW and beyond. Work at the center has already yielded important achievements, including enhanced knowledge of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 (see “Virus Research Recast” in Grow, Spring 2022).
Biochemistry professor and department chair Brian Fox commends Klessig for his annual gifts, which the biochemistry department matches. “Dan’s vision of supporting research in impactful ways stems from his insights and experiences in research,” he says. “Through his generous and flexible endowment, the department is able to support advanced cryo-EM training for students and staff and invest in the operation and enhancement of microscopes needed to keep us at the forefront of this important technology.”
A life in academia was initially beyond Klessig’s wildest imagination. He grew up on a dairy farm near Chilton, Wisconsin, where 18-hour days of hard farm work and intense studying helped him reach the top of his class despite his dyslexia. Those long working days were in part what drove him to leave the farm and follow in his brother’s footsteps as a biochemistry student at UW.
Klessig, now an emeritus professor and former president and CEO of the Boyce Thompson Institute at Cornell University, says that the excitement, enjoyment, and satisfaction of working in research meant that he never realized his goal of holding a traditional nine-to-five job. But he wouldn’t change a thing. He’s still excited about the new, almost daily discoveries in biology and the potential of the CEMRC to advance so many different types of research.
“I’ve had a lot of opportunities in my life,” Klessig says. “My undergraduate training at the University of Wisconsin and the Department of Biochemistry gave me a leg up, so they are pretty close to my heart. It’s time to give back.”
Want to support cryo-EM research at Biochemistry? Contact Brandi Funk at email@example.com. This story was originally published in the summer 2022 issue of Grow magazine. Written by Catherine Steffel, Ph.D.