Lost in Membrane Protein Crystallisation

Exactly a fortnight ago, I found myself in a spot of barney! Now I know that’s an uncanny expression (especially since its cockney slang), but if you’ve watched Ocean’s Eleven, Don Cheadle who incidentally plays Colonel James Rhodes in the movie—Iron Man Three, uses that very expression to communicate that he’s in a spot of bother…

hartmut5So unless we intend to do this job in Reno, we’re in barney… Barney Rubble… Trouble!” remarks a very upset Chad towards the end of the movie clip, referring to the fictional character Barney Rubble in the animated Flintstones television series! Fancy that? Okay, I know I’m digressing but imagine being trapped for nearly two hours in a space with over 100 intellectual 12-17 year olds who seem to know exactly what a German Nobel Laureate was going on about for nearly 2 hours about membrane protein crystallisation! Brain freeze I tell you!

Let me share what I gleaned from the excruciatingly enlightening session on 24 April 2013 by Nobel Laureate, Hartmut Michel. Speaking to an audience comprising mostly secondary, IP and Junior College students, the German genius shared his bio data, the importance of basic science for the progress of mankind and the factors leading to the awarding of Nobel Prizes. He also singlehandedly tackled a whole pile of questions during Q&A on his pet topic, some of which I’ll share in just a bit.

But first… the easy bit.

hartmut6Hartmut’s History
The 65-year-old (disclaimer: by his own admission and against Wikipedia’s records!) Hartmut rose from humble beginnings. His folks had a little home in Southwest Germany. His dad worked in a furniture factory while his mum was employed as a seamstress. The tradition of farming trickled down from his grandparents who were farmers to his immediate family, and so young Hartmut was expected to help tend to the vegetation in their garden.

Since school days ended by the close of morning, the growing child-genius happily strolled through the garden in the afternoon, helping himself to up to four books a week: Archie comic books! I’m kidding! (I just wanted to see if you’d dozed by now!) He said he read books on science, chemistry, geology, anthropology and foreign countries (talk about a unique childhood!). And found in books, an avenue to satiate his curiosity in new knowledge and experiences.

Soon enough, the lad grew up and because he did pretty good in school (as interestingly not all prodigies do), he received a ‘stipend’ (aka a scholarship) from the government and decided to pursue study in biochemistry over geology since less than one percent of geology students found relevant work on graduation, at the time.

Our German genius then rattled away like a runaway chatterbox on the rest of his history, sharing how photosynthesis is the most important process in the world, and how he got his PhD and subsequently the Nobel Prize at the tender age of 40! Over the last quarter of a century, he’s been travelling the world over (lucky geezer!), giving talks about his experiences.

3 ways to get a Nobel Prize
Then our Nobel Laureate touched very briefly on 3 ways to get a nobel prize:

  1. Method development – Hartmut said: “If you have an idea about a method that would revolutionise life sciences, you get to receive a Nobel Prize.”
  2. An unexpected discovery.
  3. If you disprove something which is generally acknowledged.

Profound questions, and profoundly simple answers
hartmut1Following this was where I got the shock of my life. I was surrounded by a company of greatness! Whiz kids all over started raising their hands and asking some pretty profound questions. I was floored. I presume Hartmut was used to these sorts of questions by now, and in any case a number of them were about his work, and so he dished out some pretty down-to-earth answers, which most of us present found, quite refreshing and amusing! I’ll just list a few of the interesting questions and answers that made an impression on me, but I’ll list the rest of the questions below and you can leave behind a comment if you’d like to know Hartmut’s answers to the rest of the questions or to a particular question.

  1. What principles of life have you followed to get to where you are?
    • You have to be energetic, motivated, interested, have clever ideas (which takes time) and work hard.
    • You have to be at the right place at the right time.
    • A broad education is better than a narrow education.
    • I have never followed a master plan but have learnt to be flexible.
  2. Do you need to know everything in order to make a discovery?
    • You cannot know everything. You must have a feeling of what is important and what is not important.
  3. How did you decide on your area of study?
    • The study of membrane proteins is very interesting. So, I chose that and tried to understand how membrane proteins work, how photosynthesis works. I researched respiration, how the body produces water. Some 900 different receptors control different things like our blood pressure. And you can take meds to activate or deactivate different receptors depending on the disease one may have.hartmut4

Some of the other questions asked at the seminar were: Did you encounter any difficulty sustaining all of your interests or did you have to sacrifice some interests? What kept you going for 3 years to persevere in your discovery? What is epigenetics and one of its associated moral issues? What would you choose to be, other than a scientist? Who helped in your experiments?

hartmut3What were the hardships in your research journey? Who has cut an inspirational figure for you? Are there any other reasons you chose biochemistry instead of physics of geology, other than better career prospects? When you have many options, which one do you choose? How do you get over differences in opinion with your research counterparts? How does one choose a research partner? Is there any difference in the research produced in Germany versus the research done in Singapore?

My Learning Points
Nearing the end of the Q&A, my head was just about swirling with the frenzy of questions and bullet-answers. There wasn’t even time to orbit to cyberspace! I was crystallised in membrane protein discussion! Oh well… thanks to the 65-year-old German and his captive audience, today I’m better for it. How so? Well, anyone can cut it big, no matter what you’re background is. And in time, people will reward and recognise your efforts even if you think no one’s watching. : ) 

Hartmut Michel moved to the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry decades ago and succeeded in crystallizing the photosynthetic reaction centre of purple bacteria, a membrane protein complex, which had been considered to be impossible at the time. Together with Johann Deisenhofer, he was then able to determine its structure by X-ray diffraction. For this work, Deisenhofer, Huber and Hartmut received the Nobel Prize of Chemistry in 1988.

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