James Bowie, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry in the UCLA College, has been selected as the recipient of the 2017 Anatrace Membrane Protein Award by the Biophysical Society. He will be honored at the society’s annual meeting in February in New Orleans.

Bowie is being recognized for his fundamental research on membrane protein structure and folding. Proteins are remarkably complex molecules with many hundreds of atoms that fold up on themselves to create a single structure. The structure is important because it places chemical groups in just the right place to perform precise chemical reactions or bind to other molecules, creating larger cellular structures.

How these huge molecules manage to find the correct structure is not only a fascinating puzzle, but is also practically important because many diseases are caused by defects in protein folding, Bowie said.

Membrane proteins are a particularly important class of proteins that is responsible for defining which molecules get in or out of the cell, powering the cell and communicating with the environment.

“Indeed the vast majority of drugs on the market target membrane proteins,” Bowie said. “Nevertheless, they present a particularly thorny problem because they have to thread through a complex environment.”

Bowie has pioneered techniques for studying membrane protein folding, provided important insights into the physical forces that drive the process and helped develop practical methods for determining membrane protein structure.