Shooting sugar using a laser is not most people’s idea of a chemistry experiment. For scientists working at Oxford University, it was just another piece of the puzzle as they worked on a 50 year old mystery about the shape of sugars.
The UN’s International Year of Chemistry, which kicks off with an opening ceremony in Paris this week, aims to bring such chemistry out of research laboratories and into the spotlight in 2011. The year celebrates the 100th anniversary of the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Madame Marie Curie. Events worldwide will invite people to consider how chemistry affects their lives, as well as to ponder some of the big questions being tackled by chemists in their neighbourhood.
One example of a chemical research frontier is in the nature and uses of sugars in biology and medicine. Despite being common and abundant in living systems, sugars have strange shape-shifting abilities which have defied accurate measurement for decades.
The Oxford team’s laser experiment, recently published in the journal Nature, allowed the scientists to isolate molecules of a sugar and take a detailed look at their shape. Importantly, turning the sugar into a gas meant the molecules were free of interfering forces, such as the presence of water or other chemicals.
The result is a major step forward in sugar research. Our understanding of some chemical types, like DNA and proteins, has leaped ahead over the past 50 years, providing us with explanations for diseases and new medical interventions. However, our ability to predict how sugars function hasn’t moved along anywhere near as quickly.
An improved understanding of sugars could usher in many exciting innovations. Sugars form the basis for crucially important classes of chemicals in everyday life, such as oils and plastics, as well as many drugs. If we learn to modify them as efficiently as we can manipulate DNA, for example, the applications could fundamentally alter cornerstones of our lives, like food and medicine.