IUPAC ’09: Patenting bacteria

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Chemists love to talk about the details of a synthetic reaction: swapping this carbon atom for that one, changing the angle between sulfur atoms by 2 degrees and so on. So during this morning’s talk by Daniel Rabinovich from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I was happy to listen to him talking about tinkering with ligands to try and recreate the chemical environment that a copper atom finds itself in the small protein methanobactin thinking no more of it other than “chemists like to try and do this kind of thing”.

Methanobactins are a small part of the large bacteria called methanotrophic bacteria that use methane to make their own carbon and energy. At their heart is a copper binding compound, which has fairly unusual chemical groups called thiones around it. As far as I could tell, the interest was in the synthetic challenge in recreating these unusual chemical group around the copper atom.

I mean, if chemists want to try and mimic nature’s functions they tend to go after big things, like photosystem II, or a huge protein structure.

But I was wrong. It turns out that a patent was granted (to other scientists unrelated to this work) on the small copper-based protein methanobactin because it is a potent antibacterial agent against S. aureus, although this is a delicate protein that will be hard to recreate in its natural form.

Whilst trying to recreate the chemical geometry of the copper atom in this small delicate protein, Rabinovich actually found a way to make a synthetic version of an antibacterial, and that is what he’s working on now.

Rabinovich has a better chance of making large amounts of the stuff. His work was all based on known procedures – albeit some obscure ones.