One problem that arises when using chemical sensors to hunt land
mines is that military explosives often bear a close chemical
resemblance to other substances present in the soil. Certain artificial
fertilizers, and even manure, can mask the mines from some detectors.
To solve this problem, Rotellos team is collaborating with
researchers in the polymer science department to create polymer
sensors that ignore the background smell of closely
related chemicals and bond strongly to one specific molecule.
Another research project in Rotellos lab involves a remarkable
material called sol-gel glass, which looks like ordinary window
glass, but is actually riddled with microscopic air-bubble holes
that allow some fine-grained substances to filter through. When
formulated with particles of riboflavin (also known as vitamin
B2) embedded in the glass, this material can become a powerful
oxidizing agent capable of replacing many of the dangerous chemicals
commonly used in manufacturing.
the economic or humanitarian benefits, sniffing the air on the
frontiers of chemistry research is never simple. The techniques
employed in Rotellos lab are as various as the projects
that occupy the researchers. Some students work with test tubes
and beakers that hark back to the laboratory scenes in a thousand
old movies, while others peer into the future as they huddle around
computer screens brainstorming the molecular design of new plastics
and experimental drugs. When it comes to actually formulating
and testing their new molecules, they turn to equipment that is
as impenetrable to a nonscientist as the warp engines of the Starship
Enterprise, equipment that somehow manages to look incredibly
expensive and utterly nondescript at the same time, great chunky
boxes of haute technology whose size is at odds with the sub-microscopic
molecular manipulations going on inside.
they are equipped to study such excruciatingly small quantities
of matter, some members of Rotellos team are working at
the intersection of biotechnology and information science. Studying
almost molecule-by-molecule the chemical interactions underlying
fundamental biological processes, they look particularly at a
molecules ability to recognize one specific feature
one minuscule piece of chemical information on the surface
of another molecule. Since biochemicals have evolved elaborate
systems for storing vast amounts of data inside individual cells,
Rotello predicts that this research could help develop powerful
biochemical transistors 10,000 to 100,000 times smaller than the
most minute transistors available today.
ability to scrutinize the smallest details of chemical interactions
is at the heart of other efforts in Rotellos lab as well.
Some team members are employing the technology to decipher the
properties of naturally occurring enzymes and other biochemicals.
For example, to determine which elements of an enzymes structure
control which of its properties, they assemble smaller artificial
molecules that mimic individual features of the enzyme. Testing
the properties of these molecules lets researchers unravel, detail
by detail, the complex code at work inside some of the biochemicals
that are essential to life and health.
such a diversity of research projects under his purview, Rotello
says, I do my best to foster the creativity of the students.
My job is to be kind of an oxymoron, the conductor of a jazz orchestra.
I oversee all the solos, and I try to fit the soloists into the
themes of the whole orchestra."