Chemistry

Life on the way to understanding the structure and function of DNA

Tetrahedron Prize winner Shankar Balsubramanian writes about his early influences in his article "Chemical biology on the genome"

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Shankar Balsubramanian, PhD, with the Tetrahedron AwardProfessor Shankar Balsubramanian, an Indian-born British chemist, was awarded the Tetrahedron Prize for Creativity in Organic Chemistry & BioMedicinal Chemistry at the American Chemical Society meeting in San Francisco in August.

Based in University of Cambridge's Department of Chemistry and Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, Dr. Balasubramanian has made many seminal contributions to nucleic acid chemistry and biology. He is a world leader in the study of quadruplex nucleic acids and has elegantly demonstrated their existence in human cells — a landmark study that can pave the way to therapeutic targeting of quadruplexes. He has creatively applied knowledge of nucleic acid chemistry to the invention of next-generation DNA sequencing, which is revolutionizing genetics and its application to medicine.

As someone who used DNA sequencing on a regular basis when I worked in the laboratory, it was an honor to liaise with Professor Balsubramanian in the run-up to the prize session. As I read through his review article titled "Chemical biology on the genome," I found that, combined with the scientific aspect, there was also a very human story about his early influences and his research. With his permission, I have condensed it below. The full review article is available in the Special Issue of Bioorganic and Medicinal Chemistry, which you can read for free.

In addition, we recorded a short two-part interview with Dr. Balsubramanian, in which he talks about his research, the challenges he has encountered, and his advice to young researchers. You can view the videos below.

— Darren Sugrue, Senior Marketing Communications Manager, STM Journals, Elsevier.

Dr. Diddel Francissen, Executive Publisher, Tetrahedron Publications (left), and Professor Stephen Neidle, University College London School of Pharmacy (right), present the award certificate to Professor Shankar Balasubramanian.My parents were immigrants from Madras (now called Chennai) in Southern India, and arrived in the UK in 1967 when I was just 9 months old. After moving around the UK in search of work and a place to settle, we eventually ended up living next to a farm in a rural part of Cheshire, somewhere mid-way between Liverpool and Manchester.

My childhood was quite relaxed, and my parents raised me in a fashion that enabled me to freely explore my interests and discover passions, without prescribing what I should or should not do. I attended a small village school in Daresbury, founded in 1600, baring a weathervane with the Mad Hatter and Alice to remember and celebrate the famous local, Lewis Carroll.

I was fortunate in being taught by a somewhat old-fashioned and hugely inspirational headmaster, Mr. (Brian) Leitch. His relaxed style of imparting wisdom and inspiration, from the history of World War II to trigonometry, continues to profoundly influence the way I think. At high school I developed a strong interest in mathematics and the physical sciences. I did not pursue biology to any great extent, as I found it to be descriptive and imprecise.

I recall my high school chemistry teacher was somewhat disappointed that I wanted to study chemistry at university, as he felt I was "bright enough" to pursue medicine. I lost touch with that teacher and so do not know whether he is still disappointed with my decision.  

[pullquote align="right"]"I recall my high school chemistry teacher was somewhat disappointed that I wanted to study chemistry at university, as he felt I was 'bright enough' to pursue medicine. I lost touch with that teacher and so do not know whether he is still disappointed with my decision."[/pullquote]

As an undergraduate, I studied natural sciences at Cambridge University. This was a wonderful way to explore science, in a broad sense, whilst ultimately developing a focus in chemistry. I vividly recall my organic chemistry tutorials with the brilliant teacher Stuart Warren, who would typically start by boiling a kettle of water with tripod and Bunsen burner to provide us with a refreshing cup of Earl Grey tea, before quickly moving on to the matter of disconnecting a challenging complex natural product on the chalkboard. It became clear that I wanted to go much further with chemistry.

I remained in Cambridge to pursue a PhD during which my mentor, Chris Abell introduced me to mechanistic enzymology and cultivated my first adventures in chemical biology. At that time, Alan Fersht's relocation to Cambridge helped provide ample local excitement at the chemistry-biology interface. I continued to develop my interests as a post-doc in the lab of Stephen Benkovic at Penn State, where I first encountered molecular biology (which is part of chemistry) and learned to think more deeply about interrogating biology through chemistry and physical methods. I was expecting to stay in the USA, until Alan Fersht persuaded me that I should return to Cambridge to start my independent academic career.

Read the full article

In honor of Professor Balasubramanian's achievement, Elsevier's Chemistry group is offering free access to the latest Tetrahedron Prize special issue of Bioorganic and Medicinal Chemistry: Unlocking Nature Through Chemistry. It includes the full version of the article above.

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Follow Elsevier's Chemistry research: (@ELSchemistry) and Faceook.com/elsevierchemistry)

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Video Interviews with Professor Shankar Balasubramanian

Professor Balasubramanian is also featured in this two-party video. Here you will find out more about his research, the challenges he has encountered, and his advice to young researchers.

Part 1

Part 2

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