Taekjip Ha is a world leader in single-molecule biology and intracellular imaging using light to study nature’s nano-machinations. His research pushes the limits of single-molecule detection methods to study complex biological systems. Ha is pioneering fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET), and his studies have revealed new information about how helicase moves along a DNA molecule as it unwinds the strands.
“We use light to study nature’s nano-machinations,” Ha says. “I’m a physicist by training, and I develop really fancy instruments that measure things that couldn’t be measured before, to answer some of the oldest and most perplexing questions in biology.”
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator is known for developing sophisticated physical techniques to manipulate and visualize the movements of single molecules in order to understand basic biological processes. In particular, he focuses on DNA transactions such as replication, recombination, and chromatin assembly, which may eventually lead to answers in addressing cancer and infectious diseases.
“You have to use sophisticated computational and physical mathematical models to get info out of sometimes noisy data,” explains Ha, who studied physics as an undergraduate in South Korea and discovered an interest in biophysics later in his career. “Biologists can’t do that readily, so we have a niche to explore, applying physics technology to biology.”
With appointments across the schools of Medicine, Arts and Sciences, and Engineering, Ha is teaching an interdisciplinary biophysics course for undergraduate students and conducting research in three labs on two Johns Hopkins campuses.
Ha’s research program fits under the umbrella of Johns Hopkins’ Individualized Health Initiative, particularly his genomics studies and tools that help connect variations in DNA sequence to individual health outcomes.
He joined Hopkins in 2015 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he was the Gutgsell Professor of Physics. He received a bachelor of science degree in physics from Seoul National University and doctoral degree in physics from the University of California at Berkeley. After postdoctoral fellowships at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Stanford University, he joined the University of Illinois faculty. He was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator in 2005.