BIOCHEMISTRY: Molecular Biophysics
Assistant Professor of Physics
Cristiano L. Dias brings an international perspective to his appointment as assistant professor in the Department of Physics. Born in Brazil, he grew up in Mozambique, Germany, Brazil and Canada, where his father worked at Brazilian embassies. He earned a bachelor’s in physics at Universidade de Brasilia, a master’s in the same discipline at Université de Montréal, and a PhD degree at McGill University.
Of his work, Dias says that the rational design of drugs for medical purposes requires a molecular understanding of proteins, which he characterizes as “nature's robots.” His research contributes to this understanding from a computational perspective in which physics meets chemistry, biology, and computer science. As a PhD student, Dias initiated a collaboration with a group in Finland to study protein stability at low temperatures. He spent his post-doctoral career in the departments of applied mathematics (University of Western Ontario), biochemistry (University of Toronto), and physics (Freie Universität Berlin).
Dias’ multidisciplinary research uses physical models and high performance computing to describe emergent phenomena in molecular biology. He has published papers in leading peer-reviewed journals, including four papers in Physical Review Letters and one in Nature Nanotechnology, “Static charges cannot drive a continuous flow of water molecules through a carbon nanotube.”
Dias is working towards an understanding of the microscopic mechanisms that account for protein folding, structure, stability and function. This will be essential essential to designing proteins with new topologies and specific cellular functions, and in the understanding of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Another aspect of his work involves the study of fluid flow through nano-devices using computer simulations and theory. Inspired by nature's design of membrane proteins, he is investigating mechanisms that produce efficient flow, with the goal of establishing the basis of tomorrow's nano-motors and nano-pumps.
Among Dias’ main research achievements is the development of a model for water that is faster to simulate than detailed atomistic models and reproduces the anomalous properties of this material. He has used this model to study the hydrophobic effect and incorporated results of this study into an implicit water model of peptides for the formation of secondary structures. He has also used the water model to study regelation — the phenomenon of melting under pressure and refreezing when pressure is reduced. A simplified version of the model was applied to explaining why proteins become unstable at low temperatures.