Research Illuminated...(continued)

Vince Rotello – Chemistry

Sniff the air in Vince Rotello’s laboratory and you might detect the happy aroma of lives being saved. Of villages where the children can play in safety because all the land mines have been located and cleared away. Of air and water that’s cleaner because powerful new materials have replaced the acids and heavy metals once used by local manufacturers.

A chemistry professor who leads a team of nine graduate students and nearly twice that many undergraduates, Rotello is supervising a multitude of projects these days. One of his most important efforts is research on a “chemical nose,” a sensing device that can zero in on minuscule quantities of target chemicals. This technology has numerous lifesaving applications, from protecting the food supply by sniffing out spoilage, to protecting a generation of the world’s children by pinpointing the buried bombs left over from yesterday’s wars.

“My job is to be kind of an oxymoron, the conductor
of a jazz orchestra.”

Vince Rotello · Chemistry


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, Rotello’s 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 Rotello’s 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.

Whatever the economic or humanitarian benefits, sniffing the air on the frontiers of chemistry research is never simple. The techniques employed in Rotello’s 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.

Because they are equipped to study such excruciatingly small quantities of matter, some members of Rotello’s 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 molecule’s 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.

The ability to scrutinize the smallest details of chemical interactions is at the heart of other efforts in Rotello’s 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 enzyme’s 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.

With 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."