My team and I label biomolecules, and we're especially interested in RNA. We develop and produce so-called probes, along with the appropriate chemistry, to label biomolecules in cells so that they are fluorescent under the microscope. Another important aim is the selective isolation of certain biomolecules from a cell. These chemical reactions have to be highly selective and, at the same time, highly non-disruptive. After all, we want to carry out these reactions on and in living cells – and these react extremely sensitively to their surroundings.
The transition from chemistry in a test tube to chemistry in a living cell poses completely new challenges for biochemists. It often makes life difficult for us, but of course it's also a fascinating field of research. 'Washing out' for instance, that is done with cells that are dead and fixated, is impossible with living cells. This is why fluorogenic labels which only light up if a biomolecule has been successfully labelled represent a new field of research. Reactions and labels that can be triggered by light, making them controllable in space and time, are also a hot topic.
Prof. Andrea Rentmeister | is CiM Professor of Biomolecular Label Chemistry at the University of Münster, Germany. CiM stands for 'Cells in Motion': More than 90 research groups from five faculties at the University of Münster, as well as from the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Biomedicine, are involved in the CiM Cluster of Excellence. Researchers from the fields of medicine, biology, chemistry and pharmacy, mathematics and computer science, as well as physics investigate cellular behaviour in organisms.
What's your great aim as a scientist?
I want to label and track selected RNAs in cells – in other words, follow the paths they take. In principle, this is already feasible, but a direct transfer of these methods to living cells is tricky. If we can make biological processes visible, it will help us understand them. After visualisation and understanding, the next step will be to control them. To achieve that, it'll be imperative to have highly selective labelling methods.
Can you remember your happiest moment as a scientist?
My team and I tend to be rather cautious characters. We are very critical and scrutinise our good result to make sure that we haven't overlooked anything.
And what was your biggest frustration?
Chemists start to develop a high level of frustration tolerance already as undergraduates. We don't let our frustration boil over. The important thing is that we always work accurately and check all parameters. It's something I also teach my co-workers. They should be able to rely on their experiments so that, if anything goes wrong, they can find out the reason why.
How much artistry, creativity and craftsmanship is there in scientific work?
In some respects chemists are academic craftsmen. We need certain skills to be able to carry out our research. Creativity, though, is even more important – because it's the only way to create molecules which have the desired properties but don't exist in nature, yet. In a certain way, that's definitely an art, too.
Courtesy of the Cluster of Excellence 'Cells in Motion', University of Münster (http://www.uni-muenster.de/Cells-in-Motion/de)