Blogging Beckman And Bracher

This morning, I paid a brief visit to a Presidential Event--Celebrating Ten Years of Beckman Scholars in Chemistry. My mission? To bring you a summary of the talk given by Paul Bracher, ChemBark blogger extraordinaire. (Incidentally, I checked the link for ChemBark today, and the site's looking a little wonky, like it's an old-school html page. I'm not sure whether it's just my computer or what.) So, what's the Beckman Scholar program, you ask? The Beckman Foundation provides scholarships, mentoring, and research experiences to a select group of undergrads. Paul says that not every undergraduate college can participate; schools have to demonstrate that they have resources for and dedication to undergraduate research before the program will allow them to take on Beckman Scholars. A fantastic hodgepodge of speakers was lined up for this symposium, including ACS President Bruce Bursten, Prof. Harry Gray, and a few Beckman Scholars, including Paul, who talked about some research related to the origins of life. Slide 1: A picture of Michaelangelo's The Creation of Adam, with a cartoon potassium ion bridging their fingers. I'll get to why that was there later. Also, Paul is using a green laser pointer. Paul leads off by saying that origin of life is a fundamental problem with plenty of interesting angles, and chemists have the ability to really delve into all of them in new and creative ways. Then he gets to the meat of the talk. Every cell is rich in potassium ions on the inside and sodium ions on the outside. Those ion distributions underlie nerve impulses and plenty of other critical body functions. Paul is thinking about how this phenomenon might have come about during Earth's infancy billions of years ago, and he's made some interesting observations with solutions of water containing potassium ions. Apparently, if you let a solution containing any of several different potassium salts (EDITED- thanks selenized!) sit out in the lab, or on the countertop, or even on a rock somewhere, the water never fully evaporates. The solution reaches a point where it picks up as much moisture from the atmosphere as evaporates away, so you get a droplet that doesn't change size. Paul set up some of these solutions (in what looked to me in his pictures like a red plastic eppendorf tube rack) and showed that they can perform some chemical tricks. They can absorb molecules from the atmosphere, which can then undergo reactions to make more complex molecules, including compounds that look mighty close to amino acids. Paul was quick to caution that he hasn't figured out how life came to be. But the experiments present an opportunity to think about the importance of potassium at the beginning of life on Earth and why the excess potassium almost always resides on the insides of cells (hence that intro slide I was telling you about). Could these droplets act as a primitive cell-like compartment before cell membranes existed? Maybe. What's interesting to me is that this droplet behavior didn't occur with sodium salts--those just evaporated to dryness. So, a cool talk. Congratulations to Paul, all the Beckman Scholars, and to the Scholar Program. I'm sure that there will be many more years of success to look forward to on all counts. Oh, and take heart, ChemBark devotees. Paul assures me that he is merely on hiatus, and that ChemBark "will rise again in due course."

Author: Carmen Drahl

Share This Post On

1 Comment

  1. oh yes, it will rise again, after due course, of course. no sex, no fun. And no Ph.D., no fun either.

    And, oh yes, money, and the truth, are both making the world go round.

    And congrats for your sexy presentaton, of course, hmmmm…..



  1. K and the origin of life « practical transmutations - [...] my job is to sit here and watch them. That and read about stuff going on in New Orleans.…