Dr. Steven Vik, Professor, Department of Biological Sciences
Steven Vik watched the Beijing Olympics through different eyes than most Americans: He spent a year in the early '80s as a visiting scholar at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and he still maintains ties with China, where he met his wife, doing occasional study on enzymes found in tea that may have health benefits.
That work has a tangential link to the fundamental biology research on cellular respiration and the enzymes involved in that complex process that Vik has been working on at SMU for a decade.
Vik, who earned a Bachelor's in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology in 1975 and a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Oregon in 1980, has been studying cellular respiration, the process by which cells break down food and turn it into ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the "gasoline" that fuels the body, since his graduate studies days.
Cellular respiration, a process that occurs in living organisms from bacteria to humans, is a multipart process encompassing glycolysis, the Krebs cycle, the electron transport chain and oxidative phosphorylation. Of these, oxidative phosphorylation, the process of combining a phosphate molecule with a molecule of ADP (adenosine diphosphate) to create ATP, was the least well understood when Vik was a graduate student, and it is the segment that he has focused most of his attention on.
Working with enzymes from the bacterium E. coli, Vik has worked out the way that ATP synthase, the key enzyme in ATP production, functions. Basically, it's a rotary motor. As proteins come in contact with ATP synthase, they cause it to turn 360 degrees. The ATP synthase takes a molecule of ADP, combines with a phosphate molecule and, with each turn of the "motor," churns out a molecule of ATP. "I don't think there is a more fascinating enzyme," says Vik, excited about his work.
Vik's research on ATP synthase has been funded by grants from the National Institute of Health and the Welch Foundation, and he's applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation for future work.
This is basic biology research, Vik does, elucidating a biochemical pathway that's key to life. "When I was in college, you got to this point and it was just a box," Vik says, pointing to a diagram he's drawn of cellular respiration that includes the "rotary motor" he and others have worked out. Someday not too far off this "rotary motor" will be included in the textbooks that college biology students read. Even biology students in China.