Sir John Walker, chemist Nobel Prize winner: «Blue skies research for the survival of mankind»

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What are the practical applications of research? How can the discovery of the production of the ATP, the “fuel of life”, have positive consequences on our daily lives?

“If humanity wants to continue living the same way they have so far, some problems such as neurodegenerative diseases will need to be solved. In the western world, where the population is growing older,  diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s are affecting an increasing number of people. The knowledge that one of their causes is linked to a mistake on the part of the body in the production of ATP allows for prevention and the development of new treatments”.  What are the practical applications of research? How can the discovery of the production of the “fuel of life” have positive consequences on our daily lives? We spoke about this and much more with Sir John Ernest Walker, winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1997, during his visit to Catania where he gave a Lectio Magistralis .

A NEW CURE FOR TB. The piece of research that granted professor Walker and his colleague Paul Boyer the Nobel prize investigated the enzymatic process of synthesis of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP), a chemical found in the cells of all living beings. “Our work illustrates the way in which conversion of energy into food becomes molecular ATP,” explains the professor. “Like electricity, it provides the energy to power everything we do: you only have to  imagine that every day each one of us produces around 50/60kg of it.” What are the applications of this finding 20 years after its discovery? “All over the world we are witnessing an increase in the number of deaths from TB. Microorganisms are now more resistant to antibiotics, and inefficient antibiotics result in the increased mortality rates of populations at risk (e.g. HIV+ patients)”. Considering this, a new medication has recently been made available called Bedaquiline which acts as a micro-bacterial ATP production inhibitor. “It is the only new form of treatment of the last 40 years and it shows how our discovery can be used in the war against the spread of antibiotic resistance”.

THE GLOBAL ENERGY CRISIS. When you talk about the survival of mankind and the fuel of life, it is only too easy to think about the energy crisis that becomes more serious every year. Regarding this matter, Prof Walker is mostly worried about the lack of attention that people have towards the planet. “Although people like Trump choose to ignore problems like global warming, it is undeniable that the need for energy to support our civilization is constantly increasing. Obviously, keeping on burning fossil fuel and gases cannot be an answer because we would continue to increase CO2 levels in the atmosphere”. What solutions do we have, then? According to the professor, renewable energies have great potential, although they still have flaws, especially when it comes to costs and storing energy. “Hydrogen could be very interesting, so long as we can split it from water molecules, while nuclear power has the problem of waste. However, today we have reactors that use Thorium instead of Uranium. Finally, the possibility of imitating processing taking place inside the sun will give future physicists extraordinary opportunities.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF CURIOSITY DRIVEN RESEARCH. “When Frederick Sanger worked on sequencing DNA he had no idea of the consequences that his achievement would have 40 years later on topics such as the origin of life. Today, people tend to see research as a political issue, but it must be remembered that most of the most important discoveries of the 20th century were the result of scientists’ sheer curiosity.” In such difficult times in which many western countries are stuck in the aftermath of the great recession that started 10 years ago, the role of research might appear jeopardized by private and political interests. In 2013, along, with 38 colleagues, Professor Walker signed an open letter warning about the cuts of European funds to research. “Personally, I don’t think that government-led research is ineffective, but you always run the risk of focusing on topics that are less necessary than others.” What is the solution, then? “Obviously, it is vital to do sustainable research. I do believe that funding both approaches to research equally would be the best strategy. And probably, the only one.”

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