Stephen Brohawn

2014 Regional Award Finalist — Post-Doc

Stephen Brohawn

Current Position:
Assistant Professor

University of California, Berkeley (Previously at The Rockefeller University)

Biochemistry & Structural Biology

Recognized for: Biophysical studies of mechano-sensitivity and elucidation of TRAAK crystal structure

Areas of Research Interest and Expertise: Neuroscience, Biochemistry, Biophysics, Structural Biology, Physiology

Stephen Brohawn


PhD, Biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
BS, Biochemistry, University of Delaware

Stephen Brohawn’s research aims to answer a fundamental biological question: how do we feel? Dr. Brohawn is interested in understanding the molecular and biophysical mechanisms by which proteins called “ion channels” respond to physical forces. These mechanosensitive ion channels translate forces on a cell into electrical currents that underlie our sense of touch, hearing, and pain among other biological processes.

As a postdoctoral fellow, he has studied a particular mechanosensitive ion channel called TRAAK that is involved in the sensation of painful force in sensory neurons. He has shown with reductionist electrophysiological experiments that TRAAK channels sense force directly through tension in the membrane, extending a principle first discovered in unrelated bacterial channels and challenging an assumption that eukaryotic channels work differently. Dr. Brohawn has also solved a series of X-ray crystal structures of TRAAK to provide the first atomic level pictures of a eukaryotic mechanosensitive channel. These structures allowed him to identify unique architectural features of TRAAK channels that may underlie their exquisite sensitivity the membrane environment and have provided a framework for understanding the biophysical principles of their force gating.

"My goal is to understand the protein machinery we use to sense and respond to the world around us because a fundamental understanding of biology is fascinating and beautiful and essential for efforts to improve human health."

Key Publications:

  1. Brohawn, SG. How ion channel sense mechanical force: insights from the emchanosensitive K2P channels TRAAK, TREK1, and TREK2. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 2015
  2. Brohawn, SG, Campbell, EB, & MacKinnon R. Physical mechanism for gating and mechanosensitivity of the human TRAAK K+ channel. Nature. 2014
  3. Brohawn, SG, Su, Z, & MacKinnon R. Mechanosensitivity is mediated directly by the lipid membrane in TRAAK and TREK1 K+ channels. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2014

Other Honors:

2008–2009 Koch Institute Graduate Student Fellowship
2011–2014 Helen Hay Whitney Postdoctoral Fellowship