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Not some dry old set of equations

Published: January 20, 2006
Section: Opinions


Let me start out by saying that this is not a standard Hoot article. It is on the Opinions page, but this article is about Chemistry. Not so fast. Dont turn the page just yet. Im not writing a textbook here, people. Nothing too boring or formal, I hope. I love Chemistry, and from the number of Chemistry majors here (20-30 declared majors at any one time at Brandeis), I know that a lot of people arent exactly as excited as I am. Sure, I am happy that 40 Brandeis undergrads have joined my Chemistry Enthusiasts group on Facebook;

however, Facebook groups dont really do or mean much of anything. Furthermore, I think Chemistry should be delivered to the masses, not only to Chemistry and Biochemistry students.

You see, Chemistry isnt some dry old set of theories and equations. And while humans have discovered a way to kill thousands with atomic bombs but have not yet cured all forms of cancer, Chemistry is packed with opportunities to help the world, to help humanity, to improve the quality of our very lives. In her message in the Jan. 2 Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), American Chemical Society President E. Ann Nalley writes, It becomes increasingly important for scientists to communicate to the public and to our legislators the value of basic research and the role it plays in connecting directly to practical intentions for maintaining economic leadership, creating good jobs, improving health, and protecting the environment while meeting our energy needs.

Enough blabbing. Its time to address some of the coolest stuff going on in Chemistry these days. C&ENs Dec. 26 Chemistry Highlights 2005 does just that, and I hope to share my excitement of just one of these highlights with science and humanities students alike.

David Baker and others at the University of Washington released an exciting (may I say SWEET!) technique of predicting three-dimensional protein structure based on just the sequence of amino acids that make up a given protein. Who cares? Think about it. Lets say you have a sequence of amino acids, the chemical building blocks that make up proteins. (For the fitness buffs, we could sit and look for research into those protein shakes you chug five times a day, but for now, we will stick to talking about proteins as the really important, really big molecules that keep you ticking.)
Anyway, you have no pretty digital models, no images at all. Nothing. Just the order of amino acids that make up said protein. For the art majors out there, a computer-generated graphic of a protein structure does look pretty darn awesome. Having a protein structure does not just look coolit is cool.

If you look at the Brandeis bulletin, theres a course in the Biology Department entitled Protein Structure and Disease. That name wasnt made up by Linguistics professors who thought it sounded nice syntactically. Protein structure is crucial in the fight against the diseases and conditions that plague mankind. An important method of discovering new drugs is structure-based drug design. In brief, its really nice to know what a protein looks like, with all its nooks and crannies, when youre trying to design a new drug to interact with the protein and ultimately bring out some therapeutic effect to improve the health and life and of people with a given disease.

Is Bakers method perfect? No. Does it work on all proteins? Absolutely not. Is it the first ever technique of its kind? No. In fact, I was recently informed that at one time a Brandeis Biochemistry professor was involved in such research. But is it a breakthrough worth noting, an advance that has the potential to help do some really good things for human life? Yes. If it were perfect, it wouldnt be scientific research;

but if it werent for scientific research, the average lifespan in America might still be lingering under 40, as it did just over a century ago.