Purdue Legends: Researcher Michael Rossmann

World-renowned scientist applied insatiable curiosity to map atomic structure of viruses

Michael G. Rossmann

1930 – 2019

In his 55 years as a Purdue professor, world-renowned physicist, mathematician and microbiologist Michael G. Rossmann applied his brilliant mind and insatiable curiosity to mapping the atomic structure of viruses.

His work in structural biology is allowing doctors to develop treatments, and even cures, for some of the world’s most vexing infections including those caused by mosquito-borne viruses in humans and animals.

Born in Germany, Rossmann emigrated to England in 1939 and was recognized as a gifted mathematician in his teen years. He was privileged to study with some of the 20th century’s top scientists as he pursued advanced degrees and entered the rapidly growing field of chemical crystallography.

Rossmann and a team received worldwide attention in 1985 when they became the first to map the structure of a rhinovirus, a virus that causes the common cold. The Hanley Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences collaborated with Richard Kuhn, Purdue professor of biological sciences, to determine the structure of the Dengue, West Nile and Zika viruses, the latter in both its mature and immature form.

An early adopter of digital technology, Rossmann began using computers in the 1950s and recognized how powerful computing systems allow researchers to more quickly organize and interpret large quantities of complex data. In 2010 a Purdue supercomputer cluster, then ranked as the 126th most powerful in the world, was named after him.

Rossmann’s distinguished research career elevated the status of Purdue’s Department of Biological Sciences, which now houses multimillion-dollar electron microscopes and the cameras that capture images at the atomic level. PhD students, all working to map and understand how viruses work, come from across the globe to study in this world-class facility.

He published more than 600 scientific papers, discovered a binding mechanism in many viruses that is now called the Rossmann fold, and was a member of distinguished national and international scientific societies. Rossmann was still actively researching when he passed away in May of 2019 at the age of 88. Upon his death, his collaborative partner Kuhn called him a “giant in the field of structural biology.”

“His work has made a real impact across the globe, and the world is safer from infectious viruses because of his dedicated work,” Kuhn says. “Few people can say they contributed as much to humanity.”