July 2, 2013

Part III: What do Brainbow mice and vegan undergarments have in common? Chemistry.

At 9:30, Nobel Laureate Erwin Neher took the stage as Laureate Ciechanover left it. Professor Neher presented his work on brainbow mice, a play on words that is obvious when you see the image of a mouse’s brain fluoresce a rainbow of colors. These images were beautiful, but they were also very informative. By labeling specific proteins in the brain of mice with different colored fluorescent probes, Neher’s group was able to visualize, with stunning resolution, the activity and structure of a living brain.

In 1991, Erwin Neher won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine alongside Professor Bert Sakmann,
“…for their discoveries concerning the function of single ion channels in cells.” - Nobel Foundation, 1991

After this visually inspiring lecture, Nobel Laureate Jean-Marie Lehn took to the stage to present “Perspective in chemistry – Towards adaptive chemistry.” The talk discussed effector driven adaptation and amplification – concerted effects of agonists and antagonists, sort of like adaptive networks. This sounds more complicated than it actually is. Here’s an example, for two proteins that work together to perform a function, if you make one function faster, you actually make the other function faster, too, and vice-versa.

Of course if you’d like to see the original explanation and presentation, please check out the Mediatheque on the Lindau website!


And then it was time to refuel: a brief coffee break to recharge, rub shoulders, and chit chat with one of the most incredible ensemble of people on the planet. Of course the line to get that strong, brilliant German coffee was not short, but it moved quickly enough.

A quick cup, a few smiles and photos, the thought “I can’t believe I’m actually here right now,” and it was back to the main hall for the second set of lectures in the day’s series.

Nobel Laureate Ada Yonath was on stage. I’ve seen her lectures on YouTube before, but hers are the type that must be experienced in person. Her presence and vibe don’t translate to video, even in full HD! After only a few moments, she had the whole hall giggling with silliness.

Of course, she discussed the work that won her the Nobel Prize, but it was the story of getting that data, some of which was obtained at Brookhaven National Laboratory. The trials and the failures, the laughs and late nights, all just blips when she won that piece of information, that data that changed our understanding of the beautiful complexity of nature: how our genetic code is translated into the functional units called proteins. Honestly, the ribosome has the look only a mother could love, a really, really loving mother. Serendipitously, Yonath seems to be the loving mother science, and nature, needed to discover and love the ribosome.

As all good things must come to an end, Ada stepped down from the stage and took the empty seat in front of me, exchanging a quick "this is so awesome" smile.

The next speaker was Nobel Laureate Rudolph A. Marcus. After Ada’s lecture, with awesome visualization of complex biomolecular structures dancing before you, Marcus’ simple slides stood apart, with elegance akin to a calligrapher’s work. For nearly ten minutes, one slide hung before you, a simple diagram depicting two iron atoms, as “Fe”, adjacent to one another, surrounded by about ten slivered triangles representing water molecules. The whole talk, in fact the work that won Marcus the Prize, was to write down an elegant equation to understand how the energy of electrons are transferred between atoms in a solution. That is, how do you write down 1023 pairs of interactions (a hundred billion trillion, or as we chemists call it, a mole), each of which is not simple, in one little equation? According to Marcus, you need: (1) luck; (2) math tricks; (3) to read a lot; (4) reasonable assumptions that cancel many terms at little cost to rigor; and (5) a very simple equation at the end that experimentalists will actually like to test. I’ll try to remember that.

I was falling in love with the nitty-gritty technical details of the science and, somehow, was forgetting that I was being lectured by Nobel Laureates in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, Lindau Germany. That’s an awesome day dream to fall out of and reality to fall into.

On to the kind of chemistry everyone knows and loves, organic. Richard R. Schrock lectured us next, “Advances in Olefin metathesis employing molybdenum and tungsten catalysts.” That is, use cheap and abundant metals to catalyze the essential chemical reactions that produce the materials of our futuristic, modern lives. Schrock reminded us that his work, along with fellow 2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner Professor Robert H. Grubbs (yeah, Professor Barney Grubbs’ dad), was actually the logical continuation of work that was performed at DuPont in 1956 by H. Eleuterio. Schrock was privy to this “old” work because he himself worked at DuPont and had access to the patents. Although I’m not an organic chemist, I rather enjoyed Schrock’s talk because it was like relearning metathesis chemistry from the guy that essentially reinvented it. If you’re a chemist, you’d understand how awesome that is. If not, trust me, it’s awesome!

Professor Robert H. Grubbs presented next. He’s tall, like Barney. I heard that the two of them like to team up at basketball tournaments at ACS meetings. Totally not fair, but totally awesome.

In any case, I have a rather personal, but indirect relationship with Grubbs. His undergraduate research adviser was Professor Merle Battiste, at the University of Florida. For me, Battiste was one of those instrumental people that challenged me to think differently and better. (Professor Grubbs wrote a nice bit about his experience with Merle) I remember visiting Merle vividly. Mountains of neatly stacked papers enlivened his office like the Himalayas. From his desk drawer, he would withdraw a pipe, pack it with sweet smelling tobacco, strike a phosphorous match, light, and exhale a breath of smoke that didn’t smell too bad. Yeah, that means he was smoking indoors, in a chemistry research facility. While my relationship with Battiste was profoundly important to me, I can only say that I was on cool enough terms with him to call him “Battiste the Beast” as I thought that was the coolest, most fitting nickname ever. He’s gone from our little blue planet now, but his memory lives on, hopefully immortally.

Just in case we young researchers needed more reasons to become the life of a future party, Grubbs reminded us that Victoria’s Secret can manufacture Vegan undergarments because of olefin metathesis organic chemistry. To all my undergraduates out there, you’re welcome for that bit of info!

Time for lunch: I had to pass so I could catch twenty minutes of REM sleep, as I have been getting less than four hours of sleep for the last four days. After a few thousand eye twitches, a cold shower, and some caffeinated beverages, it was off to a discussion with fellow young researchers led by Laureate Ciechanover.

…kevin eduard hauser