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Elizabeth Villa


Macromolecules rarely operate in isolation inside cells. At any given time, the average protein is part of a complex of over 10 macromolecules, and these supramolecular complexes are in turn embedded in intricate networks inside cells. We are broadly interested in revealing the structure and function of macromolecular complexes in their natural environment at the highest possible resolution in order to reveal their structural dynamics and interactions. We call it bringing structure to cellular biology.

We have a strong focus on building tools for quantitative cell biology, using cryo-electron microscopy and tomography, cell biophysics, computational analysis, and integrative modeling. This potent combination allows us to look at macromolecular complexes in their native environment and derive their structure, context, and interaction partners.

Our biological focus is on the study of the nuclear periphery, as nuclear biology remains one of the most exciting challenges in the cell, and it is uncharted territory structurally. Our thrust in this area includes projects such as: the structural dynamics of the yeast nuclear pore complex, the mechanical communication between the cytoskeleton and the nucleus, and the molecular architecture of the genome and its association to the nuclear envelope. We also collaborate with different laboratories to open windows into various cellular events. These projects tend to have a translational component, and include studying the inner life of bacteria and studying the effects of LRRK2 in Parkinson’s disease, among others.

Select Publications

  • R. Watanabe*, R. Buschauer*, J. Böhning*, M. Audagnotto, K. Lasker, T.W. Lu, D. Boassa, S. Taylor, E. Villa. The in situ structure of Parkinson’s disease-linked LRRK2. Cell, 2020.
  • H. Yu, S. Lu, K. Gasior, D. Singh, O. Tapia, S. Vazquez-Sanchez, D. Toprani, M. S. Beccari, J. R. Yates III, S. Da Cruz, J. M. Newby, M. Larfaga, A. S. Gladfelter, E. Villa, D. W. Cleveland. TDP-43 and HSP70 phase separate into anisotropic, intranuclear liquid spherical annuli. Science, 2020.
  • R. Wagner*, R. Watanabe*, R. Schampers, D. Singh, H. Persoon, M. Schaffer, P. Fruhstorfer, J. Plitzko, E. Villa. Preparing samples from whole cells using focused-ion-beam milling for cryo-electron tomography. Nature Protocols , 2020.
  • V. Chaikeeratisak, K. Khanna, K. T. Nguyen, J. Sugie, M. E. Egan, M. L. Erb, A. Vavilina, P. Nonejuie, E. Nieweglowska, K. Pogliano, D. A. Agard, E. Villa‡, J. Pogliano‡. Viral Capsid Trafficking along Treadmilling Tubulin Filaments in Bacteria. Cell , 2019.
  • K. Khanna, J. Lopez-Garrido, Z. Zhao, R. Watanabe, Y. Yuan, K. Pogliano‡, E. Villa‡. The molecular architecture of engulfment during Bacillus subtilis sporulation. eLife 2019;8:e45257 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.45257.
  • *co-first authors ; ‡ co-corresponding authors


Elizabeth Villa, Ph.D. is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and a Professor of Molecular Biology in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of California San Diego. She completed her PhD in Biophysics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a Fulbright Fellow. She was a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow in the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Munich. She was recruited to UC San Diego in 2014. Dr. Villa was the recipient of an NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to pursue high-risk high-reward research developing cryo-electron tomography (cryo-ET) and new technological and computational techniques to advance structural cell biology. She was named a Pew Scholar in 2017, and she was selected to become a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator in 2021.

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