In a prickly, uncomfortable year, it can be difficult to really get introspective and dive into what makes you, you.
For Luis Echegoyen, it’s important to remember that the human genome is complicated and unique, and, at the same time, that our bodies are ultimately water soup with a bunch of proteins.
Echegoyen is a research professor and Robert A. Welch Chair of Chemistry at the University of Texas at El Paso. He’s also the 2020 president of the American Chemical Society.
In October, he was quoted in several national media articles about the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which was awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna for their CRISPR Cas9 genome editing tools.
As the president of the American Chemical Society, Echegoyen said he was in his UTEP office in the Chemistry and Computer Science Building for the Nobel announcement, which came at 4 a.m. El Paso time.
“The American Chemical Society does an analysis of the news, how many people read and cast it,” he said. “At the end, they told me my quotes could have reached 800 million people. That’s kind of scary.”
Echegoyen is an accomplished researcher and lecturer. He was born in Cuba and moved to Puerto Rico early in life. He received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras.
He was previously a professor and associate professor at the University of Miami.
Echegoyen spent an hour talking to El Paso Inc. last week at his office at UTEP. Read more to learn what he said about chemistry, the ethics of gene editing and the science’s role in COVID-19 research.
Q: What was that day like when the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was announced?
The American Chemical Society has a tradition that the president, on the day of the announcement, which comes out exactly at 6 a.m. eastern time, is usually sitting in the headquarters in Washington, D.C., waiting for the announcement. Very quickly a team gets information on the winners, if they’re members of the American Chemical Society, have been published in journals, what their significance is.
The president has about 15 or 20 lined up interviews. But, obviously, I didn’t fly to D.C., so I did it here.
It’s not 6 a.m. here, it’s 4.
Q: What do you study, and how does it relate to the CRISPR tool?
What I do, and what CRISPR does, are very different. In the ‘80s, I was kind of an expert in a field called molecular recognition.
In chemistry, you have bonds that are covalent or ionic. Biology has so many of these strong bonds. When you have DNA, it’s a long strand of things that are connected by covalent bonds.
But that’s not really what makes biology. Biology comes when you make the double helix, DNA. If you’ve watched the “Big Bang Theory” they have the DNA model in the corner. What holds these things in the double helix are not covalent bonds, they’re hydrogen bonds, which are weak but you have a bunch. They recognize each other.
I did a lot of molecular recognition, mainly ionic, which is the design of something that will trap something else. What CRISPR does, is it makes a sequence of these nucleotides that will actually recognize exactly another sequence, following the A-G-C-T combinations.
It’s incredibly simple. You have four hydrogenous bases, and these four, depending on the order you put them in, gives you all the genome, what you are.
Q: What does CRISPR do?
What the CRISPR people figured out is quite interesting, and it’s where the genius comes in. They found this in some bacteria. These bacteria are living organisms, not like viruses. Some bacteria are attacked by viruses because it’s a cell. They found that in some of these bacteria, there were sequences of RNA, which is the messenger, that did not seem to have any function. They studied it and found the function was to recognize the same virus, if it came back.
So you get infected by the virus. Viruses are the stupidest but cleverest things in the world. They don’t think, they don’t have nuclei and don’t reproduce. They reproduce if they infect you, but have no ability otherwise.
So they would put their RNA into the cell, and the bacteria would recognize that sequence, copy it and put it in its own DNA. So the next time the virus would come, that thing would recognize the sequence, and break the virus and kill it.
Q: What about the Cas9 protein used in CRISPR?
What these (CRISPR) people realized is if they could make these sequences, attach it to CRISPR Cas9... Cas9 is another protein associated with the CRISPR sequence. The protein has the ability to cut the DNA in a particular place, and that’s the heart of this whole thing, which is this exquisite specificity of that sequence in recognizing only one piece of the DNA.
That selectivity is the important part. You can take bad genes out and you can put better genes in because you can actually synthesize these things via chemistry. People are now working on sickle cell anemia. It is known as the first molecular disease, because they figured out the structure of the whole protein, and saw that one amino acid was the wrong amino acid, and that creates the sickle cell.
If you can go to the genome, edit it with CRISPR, you can change the gene that encodes this protein. If you can encode the right protein with the right amino acid, you can actually cure sickle cell anemia.
You can really address genetic diseases. Anything with the wrong genes, in principle, can be fixed. Or it can be silenced. You can put additional proteins and it just blocks that whole segment of DNA, so it’s not able to make the associated wrong proteins.
It’s a revolution. Thirty years ago, people were trying to do the same thing. But they were doing it purely synthetically. They were not using true building blocks from biology. They were not using nucleotides and were using chemicals. They operated really well, and it was the same concept.
Q: What are some of the ethical issues surrounding the use of these gene-editing tools?
There is a case in China of a guy who actually knocked out a gene in some babies, to avoid them from getting HIV or something. He took out a gene that’s known to be not the generator, but a clear potential cause for HIV. If you take it out, you’re not likely to get HIV.
It’s an exaggeration to say that we’re going to use this technique to make human beings on our own. That’s not going to happen; the genome is too complicated. But you can start playing with things like that. You can knock out or put genes in if you want to change your eye color. That’s an ethical question. Should humans be playing God?
It’s clear to me that what needs to happen is to establish a very clear and strict protocol of what can and should be done. You need to work out the ethics.
There’s a crazy guy in science somewhere in the world. Are there going to be violations of the ethical guidelines? I’m sure there will be. Is that a reason to avoid progress in the CRISPR field? No.
There are also legal issues. There are now several people saying, I discovered it first and have this patent. The legal aspects, I don’t pay any attention to it. I’m a scientist, not a lawyer. I think there are two or three really battling for intellectual property. This is big money.
Q: How has studying chemistry changed as technology has evolved?
Chemistry is called the central science for many reasons. It’s the basis of biology. If you look at it very dispassionately, at the end of the day you’re a soup of chemicals. So am I. It’s mainly water, but we have proteins, but those are just atoms put together in particular sequences. Everything you see and touch is made of chemicals.
I still remember a funny story, where we were in San Diego for an American Chemical Society meeting. A group of us went out to dinner together and had this very aggressive waiter. One of the things he said to a group of chemists is that he could give us this or that without any chemicals. Of course, everyone cracked up laughing.
Chemistry is at the center of everything, and that’s what makes it so powerful. It’s the basis of biology and of material science. Polymers, ceramics, transistors, all of that, is chemistry. It’s everything and everywhere.
There’s a professor at Harvard named George Whitesides, and he says the deeper we know biology the more it becomes chemistry. Today we’re understanding things that when I was a student, nobody had any idea of. We have advanced so much, but it all distills down to chemistry.
Q: How did you first get interested in chemistry and how did it become your career path?
I’m one of those individuals who was kind of born to be a scientist. Since I was very little, I had this curiosity of why. I remember being eight and was already making electromagnets. I have this curiosity of why this works the way it works. I remember asking my mother, when I was 10, why the pressure cooker cooks so quickly. My mother looked at me like, this guy is crazy.
Things like that shaped everything about my inquisitiveness. They were very much related to the world around me.
In my first semester of college, I went to the engineering school. It turned out to be too applied for me. Engineers were taught to not do anything unless it’s going to make money, and that didn’t resonate very well with me. I wanted to do things just because of basic science, which is what we do today.
Chemists are the only scientists that control the objects they study. We make the objects. Physicists are stuck with gravity, it exists and then they figure out everything about it in theory. But they don’t make gravity; it’s there.
Biologists are the same. They’re stuck with the living world. A horse is a horse, a dog is a dog and then you figure out what makes the dog sick or bigger or smaller. Chemists don’t have to live with the dog; You make your own dog, your own compound. It’s a very creative science.
Q: What’s your perspective on chemistry and COVID-19?
It’s all chemistry, as I said. Most of the vaccines are trying to find either compounds, synthetic or natural antibodies, that will completely silence the virus. You have these spike proteins that look like ocean mines. The structure of the S protein is very well known now. They know which ones are the active spikes.
In two places of the spike, there are active sites. Those sites interact with the Ace 2 cells.
The virus spits out its RNA, the RNA goes into your cells and starts making the proteins it needs to survive. It cleaves it off, uses it and then can infect other cells. If you can block that spike protein active site, if you can put a stopper into it, then it means it doesn’t interact with your cells and you just excrete the virus.
People are trying many compounds to see if the compounds go into the active site, block it and render it ineffective. You don’t kill the virus, you block its effectiveness. Chemists are playing a very important role in all this.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Sara Sanchez
at email@example.com or call