"We're aiming to characterize as completely as we can these incredibly complex biological systems, to see all of them in all their detail and glory," said Smith, a chemist and Battelle Fellow at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
While biological systems being studied today are on the order of learning how the body makes a certain antibody to fight infection, for example, the ultimate system is the human body itself.
"We want to get to where we can picture it in so much detail that, using computers, we can predict the effect of a complex perturbation -- a drug's side effects, exposure to a virus, whatever," said Smith. "We're about 2 percent of the way there, but we'll quickly get up to 10 [percent], I think."
Thus Smith develops increasingly selective methods to separate biological mixtures of proteins, carbohydrates, hormones and other compounds. His separations are based on what is called capillary liquid chromatography, tiny tubes packed with chemically sensitive "beads" that tease apart mixtures according to size, electrical charge and other molecular properties.
Once separated, Smith and his research team analyze the various components with a powerful mass spectrometer. "We developed this technique to identify the molecules and do measurements to tell how much we have," he said. "As our approach gets better and better, we can also narrow down where molecules are coming from, where they act and with what [other molecules]."
When asked how he became interested in science, particularly chemistry, Smith said, "For some reason I decided by age 5 that I wanted to be a chemis
Contact: Allison Byrum
American Chemical Society