For more than 50 years, Michael Rossmann, the Hanley
Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences, walked
to his labs in Lilly Hall and Hockmeyer Hall of Structural
Biology from his West Lafayette home. It was a leisurely
30-minute stroll, at just over a mile to the southern tip of
the Purdue campus. However, if one adds up all of his
trips, he has traveled a distance equal to a round trip to
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and back again to Rio.
During those walks down Grant Street — past the
blocks of homes built in the early 20th century as Purdue
University grew and through an expanding campus —
Rossmann’s mind stormed with ideas. Ideas mulled on
these walks have led to monumental discoveries in the
field of structural biology.
Rossmann’s discoveries have helped doctors understand, treat and even cure infections from alpha viruses,
coxsackievirus B3, flaviviruses like dengue and Zika,
and even the rhinovirus that causes the common cold.
His latest work has been a collaborative effort with
Richard Kuhn, professor of biological sciences and director
of the Purdue Institute for Inflammation, Immunology and
Infectious Disease, to study Zika virus. The virus has
received widespread attention because of an increase in
microcephaly — a birth defect that causes brain damage
and an abnormally small head in babies born to some
mothers infected during pregnancy — and reported
transmission of the mosquito-borne virus in 33
On March 31, 2016, Rossmann and Kuhn’s team was
the first to determine the structure of Zika virus and, in
January, the team also revealed the structure of Zika’s
immature form. Both are critical steps in the development
of effective antiviral treatments and vaccines.
“The virus goes through a certain life cycle during
its infection process,” Rossmann says. “Therefore, pro-
cedures that interrupt this process are likely to block
Rossmann, a spry octogenarian, has published nearly
600 papers and received numerous awards and honors,
but his life has been more than these accomplishments.
It has been a journey through 20th century science history.
He has learned from legends, met some of history’s greats
and boosted Purdue Biological Sciences.
Rossmann’s family emigrated from Frankfurt, Germany,
to England in 1939, as World War II ignited. Rossmann
clearly remembers the Blitz, the Nazi bombing campaign
of London from 1940 to ’41.
“There were bombs every night,” he recalls.
The family resided near London, but as the war raged,
Rossmann spent many of his years at an English boarding