New chemicals and compounds can be synthesized in laboratories, found in nature, or formed as byproducts of technology. Men can artificially create them, although in most cases, they are discovered by accident. Among numerous unintended discoveries, Penicillin is enshrined as a scientific legend. Alexander Fleming, a Scottish biologist, stumbled upon it in 1928 while observing a peculiar fungus that he had been growing in his lab. It had killed off all the surrounding bacteria within the same culture. Mesmerized, Fleming further studied the chemical makeup of the fungus, which is known as a common antibiotic today.
I decided to further investigate the process of finding new chemicals and expand my knowledge on the world of bio-chemistry. Therefore, I spent a portion of my summer at the natural product chemical biology laboratory in Seoul National University. I spent weeks getting to know the professor, the graduate and PhD students, and familiarizing myself with chemistry and various types of machinery found in the lab.
|(The Liquid Chromatography Mass Spectrometry (LC-MS) detector combines the techniques of the High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HLPC) known for its capability to separate various compounds with the Mass Spectrometry (MS) which analyzes mass. It is used to acquire information of the compound’s molecular weight, identity, and structure.)
The lab focuses on the discovery of new bioactive molecules. Professors and students work to identify the chemical backbones for developing drugs and the biology behind microorganisms to perform genomic analyses. The students and professor go on “discovery missions” to collect chemically unique microbes that could potentially produce new chemicals. They dig up deep sea sediment, rummage through saltpans, acquire South African plants, and extract fungi from the back of beetles’ backs. These are just a few of the examples of where these scientists get resources from. From here, metabolites, bacteria, or fungi are extracted from the microbe cultivates using ethyl acetate, an organic compound used as a solvent. After the extraction process, these compounds are grown in liquid cultures for mass production. The expanded bacteria culture allows for a set of experiments to be done to determine the identity of the compound. Depending on the characteristics of the compound–for example, if they have biosynthetic gene clusters or if they break in light–students must design their individual experimental routes to determine the microorganisms’ chemical profiles. Some compounds are fractionated according to the polarity through the C18 columns and aqueous methyl alcohol solutions, others are purified by the HPLC machine which analyzes and separates the different compounds within the microbe.
|(During the extraction process, the bacteria culture is fractionated with ethyl acetate which helps filter all impurities. When added to the chemical compound, it creates a layer like the picture above.)
During my time in the lab, I was not only able to learn more chemistry and biology, but also learn how to operate the various machines. By the end of my internship, I was able to extract molecules using ethyl acetate and use the HPLC. I helped the professor and students carry out their experiments and fasten up their processes. This experience also gave me insight into the Korean culture and lab atmosphere. Having never gone to a Korean school, it was interesting to see the gender dynamic, seniority, and mannerisms in the lab. I did expect the gender gap to be present to a certain extent, however, it was a lot worse than I had imagined. There were no female students–just fifteen men and me. Common lunch table topics included their experiences at the army and gaming. When walking the halls to get to the dining hall or a coffee shop, the oldest stood in front followed by students in order of descending age. Whenever a professor walked by, we would fully bow down. My internship at the Seoul National University provided me with the opportunity to grow both intellectually and culturally.
Some scientists can get lucky and discover a chemical compound that could get them millions of dollars, like Fleming. With the rush to curing diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s becoming more urgent than ever, modern scientists are in the race to discover possible chemicals that could be used in patient’s medication. However, the reality is quite different than from Fleming’s era. The expanded chemical compound catalog leaves the incoming students with very little room to work with and fewer opportunities. I directly saw the effects of this at the lab. The students worked longer hours and spent more work days. Yet every single student in the lab had tiles on the wall dedicated to themselves with chemicals they had discovered. Finding three chemical compounds within the course of nine years may not sound too impressive or notable. However, the students say that is the beauty of it; every single discovery they make is like winning the lottery. And who knows? That lottery might win them the lives of millions of people and dollars one day.
The Thacher School
Kelly Oh firstname.lastname@example.org
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