This evening, at the ISACS Challenges in Chemical Biology event in Boston, I was part of a conversation suggesting that the concept of chemical biology needed a rebrand. The kids aren’t into chemical biology any more, that scene’s old, man. Of course earlier in the day, I’d been discussing how ‘molecular biologists’ have become ‘chemical biologists’ as the understanding of chemical mechanisms in biology has improved.
The truth is that over the last 48 hours I’ve watched talk after talk illustrating how the mechanics of life are molecular. They are chemical. Bacteria talk to each other using small molecules and peptides that interact with specific residues in a protein, that induces a conformational change, which changes the protein’s available residues within the cell which… and then… and that activates the hydrogen of… etc. The chemical modification of histones by enzyme x alters the reaction landscape of genes by… and so on. (more…)
The final day of ISACS proved a fitting way to round off a stunning line-up of speakers. Bartosz Grzybowski from Northwestern university in Chicago, US, took a look at the physics of cancer cells to see if they can be distinguished from normal cells by their mechanical or motional properties.
When they are still, it seems there is little to distinguish cancerous and non-cancerous cells. However, when they start to move around, the kinds of cancer cells that cause metastasis (spreading of cancer to new sites) move in quite different ways to non-metastatic cells. They start to move in patterns associated with predatory animals, which turn out to be the optimal way to search for prey – in this case new sites to establish tumours.
By looking at the mechanisms the cells use to move around in this way, the Grzybowski group has designed tiny tracks that force metastatic cells to move one way, while non-metastatic cells move the opposite way and can be separated from each other.
Thursday morning’s session at ISACS 5 was a masterclass in medicinal chemistry, with a series of talks on developing drugs or probe molecules for a variety of medically related targets. But the highlight for me was Ali Tavassoli from the University of Southampton, UK. He has developed a rather elegant way of looking at how protein-protein interactions that modulate gene transcription are affected by metabolic changes. The idea is to use an ingenious system he calls SICLOPPS to make small cyclic peptides within cells when triggered by a particular protein-protein interaction. The peptides can then interfere with the protein binding and reveal how it affects transcription.
Building and thinking with DNA
The first session of the afternoon took quite a different tack, with Erik Winfree from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, US, and William Shih from Harvard University in Boston, US, talking about cool uses for DNA.
Winfree has developed systems for making programmable logic circuits using DNA strands. As a computer scientist, Winfree is aiming for systems that can be assembled just like regular electronic components. His circuits end up quite complicated, and can do things like calculate square roots and play memory games. At the moment, they are certainly a lot slower than silicon-based computers, and can’t always be reversed and re-used, but the concept is certainly inspiring. This video gives a fuller explanation of the system.
The RSC’s 5th International Symposium on Advancing the Chemical Sciences (ISACS5)is being held in (surprisingly sunny) Manchester this week. The theme of the meeting is ‘Challenges in chemical biology’, which has – in true chemist style – been interpreted in the broadest sense, with talks ranging from origin of life theories to drug design.
Ribosomes do the hokey cokey
The meeting kicked off with a double whammy of Nobel prize winners. Thomas Steitz from Yale University in Connecticut, US, and Venki Ramakrishnan from the Medical Research Council’s Laoratory for Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge, UK, gave enlightening talks about the inner workings of the ribosome – our cells’ protein factories. Steitz pointed out that certain protein sequences cause the ribosome to stall, and abandon synthesis. By understanding what causes this, his group, along with spin out company Rib-X, are hoping to design new antibiotics that can stall bacterial ribosomes.
Both talks were illustrated with videos – Steitz included one made by a former student set to the tune of the hokey cokey, and Ramakrishnan showed this one, of how the ribosome goes about translating RNA into protein.
The final day of ISACS2 presented the two remaining speakers with a tough task – keeping the audience’s attention with the sun shining on the beautiful city of Budapest outside. But both stepped up to the challenge.
Teri Odom from Northwestern University in Illinois, US, woke everyone up with her group’s work on highly structured nanomaterials. Her team has developed a way of making very uniform sized pyramidal ‘ice cream cone’ nanoparticles, which they can then stack one inside another to make super-strong particles for Surface Enhanced Raman Scattering (SERS) spectroscopy. But the group gets a double whammy of interesting nanomaterials, because for every batch of the pyramidal shells they make, they also get a sheet of gold with an array of nano-sized holes in it. (more…)
The second full day of ISACS2 has drawn to a close, and I’m still reeling from trying to take in all the science in today’s sessions.
My favourite talk today came from Toshio Yanagida from Osaka University in Japan. He began by saying that the way we currently manage the transfer of information means that in 20 years’ time half of our electricity generation will be devoted simply to managing data networks. The human brain on the other hand uses about 1 Watt to power all of its thinking, so Yanagida’s group have devoted themselves to learning from the way muscle and brain systems take advantage of thermal noise to power their biomolecular machines to try and develop simpler ways to control complex systems using minimal energy. (more…)
Well, after last night’s veritable feast of fine dining, today it was time to get down to the feast of fine chemistry – and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Here are just a few of the highlights:
Moungi Bawendi from the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, US, and Hongkun Park from Harvard University, US, kicked off proceedings with a pair of talks about how light interacts with matter.
Bawendi was looking at the real fundamentals of how quantum dots turn light into excitons (separated electrons and positively charged ‘holes’) and back again, whereas Park’s talk was looking at channelling light in the form of surface plasmons through silver nanowires to form the basic building blocks of optical circuits. If they excite the quantum dot with a green laser, the red fluorescence appears not only at the dot but at the far end of the nanowire as well.
Following on from the first International Symposium on Advancing the Chemical Sciences (ISACS1) last week in San Francisco, US, the second meeting in Budapest, Hungary kicked off today. The theme of this second meeting is ‘Challenges in physical chemistry and nanoscience’, and I was lucky enough to bag a place at the speakers’ dinner tonight. The feeling I got from the dinner conversation is that physical chemistry is a massively broad subject, and often gets overlooked as it can be hard to classify – it’s almost like a catch-all for stuff that doesn’t fit as organic or inorganic.
But what it certainly does contain is a good slug of seriously interesting chemistry for you all to enjoy – I feel thoroughly primed for tomorrow’s talks and posters, so I’ll keep you all informed of what’s going on on the cutting edge of at least some of the multitudinous subjects arrayed under the banner of ‘physical chemistry’.
The First International Symposium on Advancing the Chemical Sciences kicked off on Wednesday, focusing on challenges in organic chemistry and chemical biology. Set in the grand Fairmont Hotel in central San Francisco, around 200 delegates were treated to a spectacular line up of plenary speakers covering a broad range of organic chemistry and chemical biology. Day one saw outstanding talks covering hydrogen-bonded catalysis (Jacobsen), iridium-catalysed asymmetric hydrogenation (Pfaltz), C-H oxidation (White), carbohydrate chemistry and biology (Seeberger, Hsieh-Wilson), rapid formation of molecular complexity (Sorensen) and the use of transition metal catalysis for the formation of pharmaceutically interesting compounds (Buchwald).
Robert Eagling (Editor, Chemical Science) and James Milne (Editorial Director) with the ISACS 1 speakers
Day two continued in an equally impressive fashion with further insights into new concepts in organocatalysis (MacMillan, Maruoka). After the break, the focus moved to chemical biology, with talks on activity-based proteomics (Cravatt) and reprogramming the code of life (Chin). There was a further shift in subject after lunch with molecular switches, motors and molecular recognition all covered (Feringa, Hunter). The second day ended with talks on new synthetic methods to lactones (Dong) and the latest developments in gold catalysis (Toste).
Jason Chin discusses reprogramming the code of life
There was plenty of high quality science on the final day, with cutting edge catalysis (Ooi) backed up by high quality chemical biology (Du Bois, Bertozzi).
The vibe at the conference was one of excitement and positivity. The Fairmont hotel is a stunning venue and acted as the perfect back drop to the outstanding scientific talks. The new ISACS conferences have certainly arrived with a bang. Next stop Budapest…