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Interview former PhD candidate Albert Wong

‘The future of chemistry lies in molecular networks’

Albert Wong - former IMM Phd candidateFormer PhD candidate Albert Wong worked in the lab of prof. Wilhelm Huck at the department of Physical Organic Chemistry. He tried to build a molecular network that has, without interference, oscillating concentrations of chemicals. Such networks are found extensively in biological cells and by mimicking them in small chemical reactors scientists like Wong are trying to understand the complex chemistry of life.

‘Using chemistry to control materials sounded appealing and that was what attracted me to the research of the IMM’, Wong explains. ‘Material design is often inspired by natural phenomena. The current limitations lie in the ‘programming’ of basic functions that are found in the cell, for example a biological clock. I do think material science is where the future of chemistry lies, but we first need to understand the rules governing biological materials.’

‘The existing chemical theories, in fact, fall short when used to describe the complexity observed in natural systems like a living cell’, Wong Says. ‘There, a vast amount of chemical reaction networks (CRNs) together define a function. If we want to understand the cell, we need to know how basic functions arise from the complex networks. As chemists, we can do that by switching from the classical synthesis of molecules (in which a reaction moves towards equilibrium) to the creation of molecular networks that perform their function in out-of-equilibrium conditions.’

Wong and his colleagues have made an oscillating network. They use microreactors with a continuous flow of chemicals from different sources that mimic the conditions in a biological cell. ‘In our experiment we continuously build up trypsin, a protein, and after a while it is broken down again. This is special because the concentration of trypsin oscillates in time by itself, without our interference’, Wong explains. ‘With such a ‘simplified’ chemical network we wish to develop a general language that uses molecular networks as the new platform to build basic units of chemical functions.’

The microreactor in the lab of Albert Wong. Different chemicals are introduced in the microreactor on the right, via tubes and automated syringes. Albert Wong.

By making small synthetic variations to components in the chemical network, precise rates in the network are altered. Thereby the delicate balance between the build-up and breakdown of trypsin is influenced. ’Simply put, we can fine-tune the chemical network to the desired conditions’, Wong explains. He says that making adaptions was the most difficult part of the research, and took most of the time. ‘Knowledge of organic chemistry was very important in our research.’

Many chemical techniques were essential in Wongs research, like NMR, optical spectroscopy, microfluidics and Matlab calculations. ‘In a model we try to predict what is going to happen in the microreactor’, Wong says. ‘Also, the multidisciplinary environment in the IMM was very useful. For example, I consulted theoretical chemists and colleagues from neurophysics for their knowledge of complex networks. They already have tools for analysing such systems.’

‘I have also learned to see which research results are most important to communicate with other scientists. When I started this PhD that was not always the same as what I personally found most interesting. The balance is better in that sense’, Wong concludes.