How do we know what we do about the structure of the cell? Many people take this knowledge for granted, because it’s difficult to understand how this was discovered. In doing so, the general public has ignored the great men whose work made these discoveries possible. Too often the public has embraced a monumental discovery, such as the structure of the cell, but neglected to embrace the people behind the magic. Their stories deserve to be told.
One such magician is Jacob Schaefer, a doctor and professor at the Washington University in St. Louis. Schaefer is considered a frontrunner for the Nobel Prize and visited the University this Friday for a Biophysics Seminar series. Schaefer is a champion of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy — I’m sure organic chemistry students just shuddered. NMR, despite its unwieldy nature, is probably the single most powerful tool available to any chemical-based research field, including all forms of chemistry, biophysics and biochemistry. In fact, the same technology that powers NMR also powers the more familiar Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines used by physicians worldwide to diagnose diseases. NMR gives researchers unparalleled access into the structure of even the smallest biomolecules. And Schaefer made it even easier to see into the microcosm. His work is indispensable to modern chemistry and biophysics, akin to developing a magical tool to look into the cell.
In 1976, he paired together two techniques to revolutionize the way NMR works. Cross-polarization magic angle spinning is essential to many fields of biochemistry. This rare technique can be applied to solids, including native tissue samples. It is used in protein determination and other structural discoveries of key biomolecules. Metabolomical studies, which is the analysis of small molecules in order to profile cells and determine disease diagnosis and prognosis — and, incidentally, the field of research I am in with the Ramamoorthy group — is also dependent on CP-MAS. By focusing on the sensitivity of low gamma nuclei, which takes much longer to detect, and increasing the resolution of the spectra by spinning samples at the magic angle of 54.7° — the angle of the Cube behind the Michigan Union — radical new insights into the structure of the human body at a molecular level have been reached. The increase in clarity of a molecule is equivalent to a jump from analog transmission to a 1080p HD feed. Schaefer looked into the abyss of molecular geometry and saw a way out.
Schaefer also devised a second technique to enhance solid-state NMR. In 1989, he invented rotational-echo double resonance. With this technique, the distance between nuclei can be measured to within a couple of angstrom, which is much more accurate than the X-ray diffraction technique used in DNA. This technique has wide-reaching applications in biology and in material sciences. Dr. Schaefer himself used this technique to diagram distances between complex molecules and other intact substances — including a structural definition of bacterial cell walls — such as the peptidoglycan outer wall, protein-DNA complexes, intact bacteriophages, which include viruses that can be used as antibiotics against diseases such as leprosy and cholera. It can even reveal the structural distances of human cells and tissues.
You may be wondering why you should care about someone who has basically made fancier ways to look at a molecule. His advances moved NMR from the physical realm to the biological and chemical realms. His techniques are being used in medicinal microimaging, pushing the realms of a MRI beyond what we have now, thus helping to create a world where we can see into the very atomic structure of a person. His techniques are being used in labs at the University of Michigan to look at the structure of bone. We can now see what a bone looks like in its native state. We can see the atomic structure of a bone, thanks to Jacob Schaefer. He himself is pushing the bounds of his field. Even at the age of 75, this remarkable man is developing ways to look at the cell, one atom at a time. He’s essentially mapping the cell wall.
His story was told on Friday. It’s now time for us all to listen in.
Nirbhay Jain is an LSA sophomore.