PULLMAN, Wash. – About 100 students and faculty will rub elbows with each other, and with several leading lights in their field, when the fourth annual Donald S. Matteson Symposium explores the application of chemistry to biological systems on Sept. 17.
 
The day-long gathering draws participants from Washington, Oregon and Idaho, as well as distinguished speakers from around the country, said Greg Crouch, a conference organizer along with chemistry professors Jeff Jones and Phil Garner.
 
Past speakers have included Robert Grubbs, a Cal Tech professor who shared the 2005 Nobel Prize for helping pioneer a way to more efficiently make molecules with specialized medical and industrial uses. This year’s speakers include two recipients of the MacArthur “genius award.”
 
“This is a unique conference in the Pacific Northwest,” Crouch said. “There’s a lot of opportunity for the students to interact one-on-one with these people. I think that’s pretty rare.”
 
Science of the very small
 
By looking at the intersection of chemistry and biological systems, the participants are in many ways pondering the basis for life at its most fundamental unit, the molecule, and the role individual molecules can play in the pathways of biological processes.
 
“In order to treat disease, we have to understand at a molecular level what’s going on,” said Crouch. “I’ve heard so many definitions of where chemistry fits in the world of medical research. The best one that I’ve ever heard is that it’s a scale thing. We investigate on a molecular level.”
 
It’s a heady time for such work, with several technological advances opening new ways of probing the science of the very small.
 
“All of these things have come together – tools, instruments, synthetic methods, understanding of molecular systems, the Human Genome Project,” Crouch said. “A lot of these things have come together in the last decade to make possible things that we’ve been dreaming about for a long time.”
 
Topics from cell communication to cancer
 
Matteson, the symposium’s namesake, taught organic chemistry at WSU for more than half a century. His work on boron compounds led to the development of Velcade, a drug used to treat multiple myeloma.
 
Speakers at this year’s symposium include:
 
* John Vederas of the University of Alberta. He studies the formation of important biological molecules, including antimicrobial peptides, amino acid metabolites and polyketides – microorganism products with antibiotic, immunosuppressive and anticancer properties.
 
* Laura Kiessling of the University of Wisconsin, a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. Her research focuses on how proteins are modified after they are formed on the template of their genetic code. She also investigates the chemistry and biology of carbohydrates.
 
* Ronald Raines of the University of Wisconsin (Kiessling’s spouse), who looks at how a protein’s function is influenced by the sequence of its amino acids.
 
* Wendy Kelly of the Georgia Institute of Technology, whose lab looks at the biosynthesis of naturally occurring small molecules in medicines.
 
* Michael Marletta of the University of California, Berkeley, president-elect of the Scripps Research Institute. Also a MacArthur fellowship recipient, he has pioneered research into how nitric oxide helps cells communicate.