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Archive for Sunday, September 12, 2004

Scientific victories can be hard to swallow

September 12, 2004

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It was an ugly win. That's how a former Kansas University basketball coach put it when little went right but his team still came away with a victory.

There are ugly wins in science, too. Little goes right for years and then, presto, your work gets published in one of the best scientific journals on Earth.

This just happened to David Graham, KU associate professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering.

For years, he and colleagues at KU and Iowa State University struggled to prove the existence of a molecule. On Friday, work showing they were correct was published in the journal Science.

A little bacterium uses this molecule. The molecule latches onto copper and then drags it inside the bacterium. The bacterium uses the copper to break down methane for energy.

Why is that important? Because methane is the second most common greenhouse gas, right after carbon dioxide.

Amazingly, it took almost 15 years for the researchers to decode the molecule's structure.

Graham says he and his long-term Iowa State colleague Alan DiSpirito "have been working on this molecule since almost before we can remember."

For years, their work generated only skeptical interest.

The two submitted three grant proposals together to national agencies, got excellent reviews, but little funding.

Prove the molecule exists, and we'll give you money to study it, the reviewers said.

Give us the money, and we'll prove it exists, they shot back.

Catch-22.

It wasn't just the agencies that were skeptical. So were most other scientists who were close to the issue. In their hypotheses, the molecule just didn't seem to be needed.

In fact, Graham and DiSpirito themselves had a devilish time isolating the molecule for study. DiSpirito, working for years with a brilliant graduate student, Jim Zahn, figured out 70 percent of the final structure.

Then Hyung Kim, a then-KU graduate student who's now at the University of Minnesota, assisted by Mike Alterman at the KU Biosciences Service Laboratory, came up with a subtly different strategy for preparing the molecule for study.

Kim's persistence and an ingenious scientific trick finally removed the veil from the molecule.

Amazingly, Kim was paid for his work during this period for efforts on other projects. Alterman provided lab space for free.

The Research Development Fund, administered by the KU Center for Research, was the project's major donor in the past five years.

Frustrations among the authors were enormous. They invested a lot of time, had few resources and took plenty of risk.

They were hindered by being on the margin of the community that studies these kinds of molecules, Graham says.

Straying outside your discipline and finding success -- to the heartbreak of disciplinary insiders -- is one of the recurring themes in ugly science.

Linus Pauling, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist, had been trying to decipher the chemical basis of life for years when Watson and Crick, who were physicists, finally spelled out the structure of DNA.

Graham is in a civil engineering department, not chemistry or biology. What business did he have participating in this discovery?

Here's the answer: Outsiders are sometimes less hemmed in than experts by a sense of what's possible and what isn't.

Nevertheless, Graham, DiSpirito, Kim, Alterman and KU chemist Cynthia Larive have paid for their success with pained frustration.

Science can be rewarding. It can be ugly. And it can even hurt.

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