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Cells and their possible origins


Prebiotic chemistry
Baruch Blumberg Physician
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In a way, it's very hard to be a research director because you have to… you have to sort of see the end of things in their beginning; well, you can't do that, you know, and it… it's kind of risky. Now, there are indications as you go, for example, on our own line of research on hepatitis, we had to decide whether we were going to work with this Australia antigen when we’d discovered a dozen others, but a lot of it's kind of intuition and a lot of it's kind of imagination. You can sort of see, you can kind of imagine, what could happen in the future, but a… but a big feature is if you can determine some order in it, if you see some order in… in the phenomenon, then you have a sense, okay, first of all you can study it, secondly, you know, if the techniques are feasible, they’re reproduceable and all these, and relatively easy to do, not expensive; and so you make your decision on that basis, and… and part of the decision is often made, if you have, you know, collaborators or colleagues and you like working with them on that particular project. That… that's a good reason to do it because —  not the only reason, but if you're really interested in a project and excited about it and you like to work on it, you’re going to … you’re going to… you're going to turn it into something. You know, if everything's connected to everything else, right? You can start anywhere. And you’ll end up finding something, something that's valuable. It's a question of pursuing it. I often use the… the metaphor of Paul Bunyan, you know, there's a sort of folktale about Paul Bunyan. So the story is how did… how did… what happened… caused the 1905 earthquake, right, in San Francisco. So, the story was that he was in a rooming house in Oakland, and it was cold in the room, you know, there was a radiator and it wasn't operating, so he grabbed hold of the radiator and started shaking it. Well, it turns out the radiator was connected to all the other radiators in the house and they were connected to all the radiators in the Bay area and he shook it and that was the earthquake. Okay, that's the way nature is, everything's connected to everything else and you change one thing, you change something else in a highly unpredictable fashion.

So it's very hard for me to… I… I think the work on extremophiles, you know, I personally was interested in that. Prebiotic chemistry, there's a lot of work done on that. There's… there… the elements to make proteins and to make… to prepare DNA and so forth, nucleic acids, and you can… there…. the basic elements are in space and, you know, meteor… some meteorites, carbonaceous chondrite meteor… carbonaceous meteorites, contain a lot of organic stuff and some of those have been, many of, several have been… have been analyzed, particularly the Murchison meteorite which landed in Murchison in Australia and it had a lot of organic stuff and it was kept… you see, the problem is if you pick up on a meteorite, you know, is it contaminated by Earth material? But apparently this… they had reason to believe that there was little contamination and, boy, they found amino acids you know, some that we don't… not in our biology and PAHs and many other organic compounds and stuff that you make phosphile lipids, you know, so a lot of… there's a lot of interesting work on… on prebiotic chemistry in space. Now, a lot of that comes from meteorites — when we get return missions we'll learn more — but there's also a lot of, tons, of meteoritic dust or micrometeorites land on earth and if you go up to the Arctic, I'm sorry, down to the south, the Antarctic, there's a… there’s a research base at the South Pole, the Scott-Amundsen Research Base [sic], and they get their drinking water by melting snow and they have a big kind of pit there where they have steam, you know, and it melts the snow and they get the water out of it and occasionally they… they clean it. Well, you collect… there's a bunch of dust that's collected in there, essentially it's all extraterrestrial because there's very little dust at the… at the South Pole. There's a machine… there's some machine tools and stuff like that, but not much dust. So most of that’s extraterrestrial and there are organic molecules in that and then they just brought this stuff back from the comet, you know, a very successful mission and that's landed, and then they do spectroscopic observations, you know, for things like the Perseid shower. You know what those are, by the way? Those showers that we go through, you see all the shooting stars, you're going through the track of a comet and very often it was the track of the comet in 1872 so, you know, each orbit you can kind of plot out when it came through based on the Newtonian physics and there are some that are periodic, you know, you go through the same one every year and, well, there’s a colleague of mine, who we actually helped fund and he, with great energy, managed to get the Air Force and NASA to loan, we have some experimental aircraft that carry a lot of equipment, so they can fly them fairly high, 30, 40,000 feet I think, and you can get spectroscopic measurements on the… on the stars. They're… they’re quite low, you know, they're 20, 30,000 feet, 40,000 feet. So they're pretty close, and you can get a lot of information on organic material and other constituents from that. So that prebiotic chemistry is… is a very important part of what's happening.

American research physician Baruch Blumberg (1925-2011) was co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1976 along with D Carleton Gajdusek for their work on the origins and spread of infectious viral diseases that led to the discovery of the hepatitis B virus. Blumberg’s work covered many areas including clinical research, epidemiology, virology, genetics and anthropology.

Listeners: Rebecca Blanchard

Dr Rebecca Blanchard is Director of Clinical Pharmacology at Merck & Co., Inc. in Upper Gwynedd, Pennsylvania. Her education includes a BSc in Pharmacy from Albany College of Pharmacy and a PhD in Pharmaceutical Chemistry from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. While at Utah, she studied in the laboratories of Dr Raymond Galinsky and Dr Michael Franklin with an emphasis on drug metabolism pathways. After receiving her PhD, Dr Blanchard completed postdoctoral studies with Dr Richard Weinshilboum at the Mayo Clinic with a focus on human pharmacogenetics. While at Mayo, she cloned the human sulfotransferase gene SULT1A1 and identified and functionally characterized common genetic polymorphisms in the SULT1A1 gene. From 1998 to 2004 Dr Blanchard was an Assistant Professor at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. In 2005 she joined the Clinical Pharmacology Department at Merck & Co., Inc. where her work today continues in the early and late development of several novel drugs. At Merck, she has contributed as Clinical Pharmacology Representative on CGRP, Renin, Losartan, Lurasidone and TRPV1 programs and serves as chair of the TRPV1 development team. Dr Blanchard is also Co-chair of the Neurology Pharmacogenomics Working Group at Merck. Nationally, she has served the American Society of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics on the Strategic Task Force and the Board of Directors. Dr Blanchard has also served on NIH study sections, and several Foundation Scientific Advisory Boards.

Tags: South Pole, Paul Bunyan

Duration: 6 minutes, 34 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2007

Date story went live: 28 September 2009