Piotr E. Marszalek


Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science

My research focuses on investigating relationships between structural and mechanical properties of biopolymers (polysaccharides, DNA, proteins), which I study at a single molecule level. My main approaches are experimental scanning probe microscopy techniques and computational methods involving Molecular Dynamics simulations and ab initio quantum mechanical calculations. The ultimate goal of this research is to understand the above-mentioned relationships at an atomic level and to apply the knowledge gained towards elucidating basic phenomena such as: molecular recognition that mediates interactions between proteins and sugars, mechanotransduction that underlies mechanical sensing and hearing in all organisms, and protein folding that is fundamental to all biology. Our DNA research is aimed at exploiting atomic force microscopy techniques to develop new ultra-sensitive assays for detecting and examining DNA damage, the process underlying carcinogenesis, and to increase our mechanistic understanding of DNA damage and repair processes. This research, in addition to its basic science aspects will lay a foundation for the future use of AFM technologies in the nanoscale DNA diagnostics with a potential to directly benefit human health.

Appointments and Affiliations

  • Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science

Contact Information

  • Office Location: 3387 Fciemas Building, Box 90300, Durham, NC 27708
  • Office Phone: (919) 660-5381
  • Email Address: pemar@duke.edu


  • Ph.D. Electrotechnical Institute (Poland), 1991
  • M.S. University of Warsaw (Poland), 1985

Research Interests

The invention of the atomic force microscope (AFM) in 1986 by Binnig, Quate and Gerber (Phys. Rev. Lett. 56, 930) started a revolution in many branches of science by realizing an unprecedented possibility to visualize and manipulate individual molecules under ambient conditions including water, which is critical for most studies involving bio-molecules. Biomolecular studies are therefore, in my opinion one of the main beneficiaries of this seminal invention. I was very fortunate to start my AFM research in 1997, the year, which marked great progress in AFM-based single-molecule force spectroscopy of proteins and polysaccharides. From the very beginning of my AFM work I experienced a particular appeal to polysaccharides research. This is because the wealth of information contained in their AFM measured force-extension relationships with totally unanticipated deviations from the entropic elasticity of simple polymers prompted me to believe that many interesting and quite fundamental observations can soon be made by studying polysaccharides elasticity. Protein mechanics is, in my opinion, another area of great potential because investigating the elastic properties of individual proteins promises to make significant contributions to the understanding of mechanotransduction, which is a process that underlies such important and basic phenomena as a sense of touch and hearing in all organisms. In addition, investigating mechanical unfolding and refolding reactions of individual proteins can contribute to elucidating the mechanism of protein folding, which is fundamental to all biology. More recently I initiated a new area of research by applying the AFM-based technology to study DNA damage and repair. While my polysaccharide and protein research is extremely rewarding by continuously offering quite fundamental observations and discoveries to be made, the new DNA research promises in addition even a greater scientific fulfillment through its possible contributions to medicine and human health.


Nanomaterial manufacturing and characterization
Nanoscale/microscale computing systems
Polymer and Protein Engineering

Courses Taught

  • BME 493: Projects in Biomedical Engineering (GE)
  • BME 494: Projects in Biomedical Engineering (GE)
  • EGR 391: Projects in Engineering
  • ME 331L: Thermodynamics
  • ME 555: Advanced Topics in Mechanical Engineering
  • ME 592: Research Independent Study in Mechanical Engineering or Material Science
  • ME 759: Special Readings in Mechanical Engineering
  • MENG 550: Master of Engineering Internship/Project
  • MENG 551: Master of Engineering Internship/Project Assessment
  • PHYSICS 493: Research Independent Study
  • PHYSICS 495: Thesis Independent Study

In the News

Representative Publications

  • Josephs, EA; Marszalek, PE, Endonuclease-independent DNA mismatch repair processes on the lagging strand., Dna Repair, vol 68 (2018), pp. 41-49 [10.1016/j.dnarep.2018.06.002] [abs].
  • Li, Q; Scholl, ZN; Marszalek, PE, Unraveling the Mechanical Unfolding Pathways of a Multidomain Protein: Phosphoglycerate Kinase., Biophysical Journal, vol 115 no. 1 (2018), pp. 46-58 [10.1016/j.bpj.2018.05.028] [abs].
  • Plata, CA; Scholl, ZN; Marszalek, PE; Prados, A, Relevance of the Speed and Direction of Pulling in Simple Modular Proteins., Journal of Chemical Theory and Computation, vol 14 no. 6 (2018), pp. 2910-2918 [10.1021/acs.jctc.8b00347] [abs].
  • Gimsa, J; Wysotzki, P; Perutkova, Š; Weihe, T; Elter, P; Marszałek, P; Kralj-Iglič, V; Müller, T; Iglič, A, Spermidine-Induced Attraction of Like-Charged Surfaces Is Correlated with the pH-Dependent Spermidine Charge: Force Spectroscopy Characterization., Langmuir : the Acs Journal of Surfaces and Colloids, vol 34 no. 8 (2018), pp. 2725-2733 [10.1021/acs.langmuir.7b04199] [abs].
  • Marszalek, PE, Warhammers for Peaceful Times., Biophysical Journal, vol 114 no. 1 (2018), pp. 1-2 [10.1016/j.bpj.2017.10.043] [abs].