Letters from Lindau: Day 4

Editor’s note: Anthea Blackburn is a graduate student based in the US who is attending the 63rd Lindau Meeting of Nobel Laureates (this year dedicated to chemistry) in Germany. Anthea is writing daily blog posts from the meeting for the Sceptical Chymist.

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Well readers, we are officially halfway through the Lindau Meeting, and time has flown!

Today began with worms, C elegans to be precise, and the work of Martin Chalfie, 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, of green fluorescent protein (GFP) fame. Of course the story of GFP and worms are unrelated, but this story began over 30 years ago with an interest in senses, specifically touch. As I’m sure you can appreciate, senses, even in worms, are very complicated, so the multiple processes involved in modulating touch sensitivity did not begin to form a clear picture for the research team until well into the study. It has become evident over the past few days that, in biological studies, the completion of a story and the confirmation of a hypothesis are often dependent on the development of the appropriate technology — something I, as a synthetic chemist, have never really stopped to consider, and which I often take for granted!

The next talk by Steven Chu, 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics (for using laser light to cool and trap atoms), and coincidentally the most recent Secretary of Energy in the US government was one that got most people talking long into the lunch break — the challenges resulting from climate change. As we are all aware, the levels of atmospheric CO2 have increased exponentially since the beginning the Industrial Revolution to a level significantly higher than that ever recorded in the last 600,000 years, which has since resulted in a multitude of other environmental effects: climate change, a recent abundance of natural disasters, global warming, and increasing sea levels, to name but a few. Recent scientific and technological advances (more efficient fridges, electric cars, and so on) have evolved to decrease the effects of energy consumption on the environment, but we are only touching the surface of what needs to be done.

Unfortunately, many of the technologies and renewable energy sources currently available cannot be widely utilised, because of their high costs; costs that are often dictated by bureaucracy. In order to make the technological advances required, fundamental energy research needs to continue, in conjunction with mission-directed research, for which a number of funding agencies dedicated to this approach now exist. I was also able to attend a discussion with Chu, in which the point was also raised that in addition to the research being carried out, it is also important the general public are educated in both the research that is going on to help in their future, but also, and perhaps more importantly, they need to begin to appreciate that their actions today will have a serious effect on their future — a facet of science communication I am very interested in. Perhaps I should look into a career in politics?

We transitioned from this passionate talk to one on an equally important topic — aquaporin (AQP) H2O channels — by Peter Agre, 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. These channels facilitate transmembrane water permeability, and direct the flow of H2O into a number of types of cells in a very controlled fashion. There are hundreds of different AQP that have been discovered, 13 of which are present in humans. Defects in the function of these systems can then have a profound physiological effect on parts of the body, including kidneys, lungs, eyes, and the blood-brain barrier, to name but a few. Perhaps the most significant effect occurs with aquaglyceroporin (a form of AQP) in the presence of malaria, in which the system increases the virulence of the disease. Unfortunately, malaria is now becoming drug-resistant, so if a system can be developed in which the AQP is knocked out, we stand a chance of beating malaria and the detrimental outcomes it has on those affected.

As an avid crystallographer, I have been excited to hear from Dan Shechtman, 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and the development of five-fold symmetric, aperiodic crystals for some time now. This work proved to be a paradigm shift in the field of crystallography, which until recently was considered a ‘mature’ science, and even facilitated a radical change in the International Union of Crystallography (IUCr) definition of what a crystal is, to now allow it to exclude periodicity from its three-dimensional lattice. Shechtman stressed the importance of keeping a detailed lab notebook, so that in the case you need to discuss your research disbelief to future audiences, you have some visible proof. Of course, the diffraction patterns (the most beautiful I have ever seen!) with obvious five-fold symmetry were sufficient! The time it took for this work to be accepted by the scientific community (two years until the first publication was accepted), show the impact new results can have on scientific fields assumed to be fully characterized. In fact, it was only upon the death of Linus Pauling in 1994 that the scientific community truly began to accept the discovery of quasi-crystals and his ‘papers stopped being rejected!’

The advent of multi-dimensional NMR spectroscopy is also an area of research near and dear to my heart, that is, the work carried out by Richard Ernst, 1991 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Ernst skimmed quickly over his work on NMR spectroscopy however, using it instead as a stepping-stone into sharing with us his other passion — Tibetan art. Of course, this interest in art is not entirely unscientific, with the household garage housing a Raman spectrometer, so that the molecular pigments can be analysed and the history and origin on the hundreds of paintings he owns learned. The point of this segue from traditional science, while obviously something that is a strong passion of Ernst, was intended more to show us that scientists need interests and passions outside of chemistry (although obviously not too far outside of chemistry!) We need to expand our interests to engage the parts of out brain other than the frontal lobe, and in this way we can discover ‘the multiple fascinations of reality’. This approach has obviously worked for other highly successful scientists — Einstein, Feynman, Hoffmann, da Vinci, but perhaps I will have to wait until after grad school to redevelop my interests outside of the lab. Does sleep count as an interest?

As I mentioned yesterday, much of the work being discussed has only been possible as a result of the work presented by other Laureates at the Meeting. The work on the solution-state studies of proteins using NMR spectroscopy by Kurt Wüthrich, 2002 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, was no exception. Previously, information on the structures of proteins was only possible using X-ray crystallography, which while very useful, only offers information on the protein conformation at very low temperatures, which freezes out the dynamic properties of the system. Luckily, the advent of protein NMR spectroscopy using various correlation spectroscopies offered such a method of studying the switching between the active and inactive states of proteins. Furthermore, 19F NMR spectroscopy was useful, as biological systems do not contain F atoms, so selective labeling of sections of the protein offered a means of introducing probes to the system that could be studied. While this work was specific to biological systems, it is also relevant to small-molecule chemistry, as it is often easy to get carried away with how nice a solid-state structure looks, but that this may or may not be the structure that occurs in solution.

We finished the day with a panel discussion from Gerhard Ertl, Bob Grubbs, Hartmut Michel and Richard Schrock on chemical energy conversion and storage. The four Laureates answered a large number of questions, but the main idea that arose was that we don’t necessarily have a lack of available energy, we just need to know how to harness it and store it in a useable form. The key to realizing these challenges will be interdisciplinary and we should focus on using multiple energy sources (solar, wind, hydro, thermal), rather than limiting ourselves to only one. Although, as Schrock mentioned, if we are correct in assuming we are moving into a new ice age, perhaps we don’t need to worry about the energy crisis… Don’t mull on that thought for too long, readers!