During my second year at college, I needed to decide on the type of research I wanted to conduct. I had heard a little bit of chit-chat about the different types of research that were offered, but did not really understand what any of these projects would entail. When I heard that joining a research project was a requirement to graduate, I started to ask professors about what was offered. Some of the topics included characterization of fluorescein, chemical composition of rocks, and working with biofuels. While any one of these topics would have fulfilled the research requirement, none of them particularly sparked my interest. Finally I approached my advisor, Dr. Michele Harris, and explained that I was looking for research experience. She told me a little about her own research involving biotransformations and a reduction reaction, none of which I really understood, but for some reason her work with carrots stayed with me.
At the time, I had only taken freshman chemistry and had been in organic chemistry for only a few weeks, so I wasn’t very fluent in biochemical terminology. Despite not fully understanding the details of her research, I decided to join Dr. Harris’s research team. When I considered my other options, carrots seemed more appealing.
So by this time, I’m sure you’re wondering: What exactly are carrots doing in the laboratory? Our research is based in biotransformations. For those of you who are not very familiar with the topic, biotransformation is the conversion of one chemical to another inside the body. However, these reactions can also occur in nature using whole-cell catalysts like carrots. These types of reactions are extremely valuable to the pharmaceutical industry in production of new drugs. But just as importantly, biotransformation reactions are a part of the chemistry field known as green chemistry.
Green chemistry is the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the generation of hazardous substances. On a broader scale, the use of green chemistry has environmental, health, and economic impacts. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, green chemicals usually degrade into non-toxic products or can be recycled and recovered for further use. These types of reactions, such as biotransformations, also lead to higher yields and consume smaller amounts of starting materials. Research in this field eliminates the need to ensure the proper disposal of hazardous wastes by eliminating the production of them. This results in reduced costs in research expenses. Also, eliminating toxins in the environment creates healthier lives for all living things. This is one of the reasons why this research environment was appealing to me.
Now that you understand the basis of our research, let’s get into some specifics. The biotransformation reaction deals with the stereospecific conversion of benzofuran-2-yl methylketone to 1S-1(2-benzofuranyl)-ethanol using carrots as a catalyst. Once the reaction was perfected, we focused on the purity of our product through optical rotation. Literature values revealed that the optical purity of the resulting alcohol should be about –16. After improvement of purification techniques, this value was successfully produced. Upon performing additional studies, we found that only four grams of carrots are necessary to have a complete conversion of ketone to alcohol. Also, we found that with repeated use of a single carrot sample, only two complete conversions are possible.
We also performed some antibacterial studies that have opened up the idea of antifungal research with our resulting alcohol. We also plan to incorporate the use of cellulase to enhance the possibility of fully characterizing the protein on the surface of the carrot that facilitates this reaction. Because this conversion results in a stereospecific product, this biotransformation reaction has a great impact on the pharmaceutical industry. Stereospecific alcohols can be used as drug derivatives and lead to the production of new drugs or better engineered drugs. The fact that the reaction eliminates the use of harsh chemicals is also a plus. Pharmaceutical companies generally seek to produce single-enantiomer drugs in order for those drugs to react as desired in the body with fewer side effects. With the use of carrots as a catalyst, the process is more natural and cost-efficient, using a biotransformation reaction.
After being involved in this research for a little over a year, I can say that it has greatly impacted my life. Just making connections with other students and my professors has been of great benefit. Also, my lab technique has greatly improved since beginning research. I’ve become more independent in the lab and arrive more prepared for each lab period. My current research has really gotten me interested in pharmaceutical research and starting a career in pharmaceutical formulation and production. Regardless of your major, I encourage all of you to participate in some type of research. Some of you may see it as merely a graduation requirement, but participating in research is actually an opportunity to apply your knowledge and further define your career goals through experience.