July 1, 2013

Part I: A Morning to Remember

Today was the first dawn to dusk day of events at the Lindau Meeting. Immersed in the spirit of Lindau: Seven Nobel laureates lecture at the Inselhalle. 1

Plenary lectures, published on the Meeting’s Mediathoque, were delivered by Nobel Laureates Brian Kobilka (2012), Gerhard Ertl (2007, “…for his studies of chemical processes on solid surfaces.”), Akira Suzuki (2010, “…for palladium-catalyzed cross coupling in organic synthesis.”), David J. Wineland (2012 Physics, “…for ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems.”), Sir John E. Walker (1997, “…for their elucidation of the enzymatic mechanism underlying the synthesis of adenosine triphosphate (ATP)”), and Hartmut Michel (1988, “…for the determination of the three-dimensional structure of a photosynthetic reaction centre.”).

Amazingly, I was able to slip into the best seat in the house, again, for the morning lectures. Instead of sitting next to Countess Bettina, this time I was sitting next to two Nobel Laureates, Akira Suzuki and Gerhard Ertl. And no, they didn’t sneak a wink of sleep, I checked.

The lectures covered a range of topics from the outlook of drug discovery to founding new principles in catalysis. Dr. Brian Kobilka illuminated current challenges, and ways forward, to discover and develop much needed new medicines targeting G protein coupled receptors. These proteins comprise, by far, the largest set of drug targets pursued by the pharmaceutical industry, and that is primarily because of their central role in signal transduction.

On to the fundamentals of matter, the course of the lectures was driven by Dr. Gerhard Ertl, who discussed the physical chemistry of characterizing chemistry at surfaces, with atomic resolution. That is, he showed movies of actual atoms moving about a catalytic surface — absolutely awesome. Dr. Akira Suzuki presented his cross-coupling reactions, their mechanisms, and uses. If you studied organic chemistry, you know why Akira Suzuki is a Nobel Laureate.

Many people don’t realize it but chemistry led us to the quantum revolution at the turn of the 20th Century. Today, Professor David J. Wineland, the uncle of the quantum computer, described the general engineering and physical principles that make up his quantum computer. With such a technology in hand, ultimately, unpredictably awesome advances in our lives will be enabled.

The fuel of life is the chemical adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and the mechanism of its synthesis via the ATP synthase enzyme in mitochondria was determined by Sir John E. Walker. His talk, entitled, The Fuel of Life, touched on the increasing evidence suggesting that when the ATP synthesis machinery and supply chain breakdown, we age, we get cancer, and we fall into neurodegenerative and neuromuscular states of disrepair. Generating ATP is so fundamental to life, that plants share very similar ATP synthase enzymes, albeit housed in chloroplasts and not just mitochondria. The differences, however subtle, are important, namely the symmetry of the core crank domain, which leads to significantly different ATP generation efficiencies. That is, because of the shape of the ATP synthase, the number of protons needed to generate one ATP is different, which is essential to understanding what fuels life.

The last lecture in the plenary lectures, “Structure and mechanism of Otto Warburg’s respiratory enzyme, the cytochrome c oxidase,” was delivered by Dr. Hartmut Michel. This talk retold the story of cytochrome c oxidase, which began in 1886, but rejuvenated with new tools and more accurate hypotheses. A love story of life, the marriage of oxygen and hydrogen yield water: a force of nature, a force of life, and a force we do not understand, yet. However adventurous, exciting, and profound the story has been to date — over a hundred years in the telling — it is still being written.

Walking my way out of the lecture hall, my trajectory was engaged by the gravity of a constellation of enthused young researchers orbiting Steven Chu. Subtle and smart smiling and eye contact allowed me to penetrate the field; I was able to pitch, in thirty seconds, my crazy idea about electrifying the interstate highway system, solving some big problems at once, but sorting the bill of it, too. I’m not entirely sure Big Steve was grooving to my tune, but he did point to a fault in my proposal, which is what I sought from him. He countered with a solution.

I pause this post at lunch to break up the awesomeness. Read on, as at the end of the evening, I end up dancing, well, and in interesting company!

... kevin eduard hauser

Footnotes: 1. Island hall (German)

Photo caption: The author (right) with Brian Kolbika