#5: Professor Itaru Hamachi Controlling biological systems with the power of chemistry

#5: Professor Itaru Hamachi Controlling biological systems with the power of chemistry

This series has already reached its fifth interview of research scientists. This time, we are glad to have Professor Itaru Hamachi from the Department of Synthetic Chemistry and Biological Chemistry, Graduate School of Engineering at Kyoto University, introduced to us by Professor Kenichiro Itami at our second Chem-Station interview. Professor Hamachi mainly explores what he calls “cellular organic chemistry”, which is chemical biology focused on the study of proteins.

He has recently reported numerous excellent results and is a very active researcher. He is an outstanding individual, both in his academic talents and personal traits, and I am personally very glad to have had the pleasure to conduct an interview with him. Please read on to find out more about him on a personal level!

[su_dropcap style=”flat” size=”2″]Q[/su_dropcap] What made you choose chemistry as a career?

 

[su_dropcap style=”flat”]A[/su_dropcap]

Back in junior high, I had learned that all matter (both living beings and rocks) is made up of atoms and molecules, and I had felt some sort of odd excitement toward that fact—this is probably an indirect reason, however. The more direct reason is that my grade 12 chemistry teacher knew that I wanted to become a philosopher, and advised the following: “You wouldn’t be able to make a living out of philosophy, but I know someone at the Department of Engineering at Kyoto University who philosophizes in the field of chemistry; if you want to do philosophy but in the field of chemistry, you would be able to make a living.” He then gave me a book on the chemistry of crown ethers. This “someone he knows” turned out to be Professor Tabushi at the Department of Synthetic Chemistry at Kyoto University, and while he passed away during my doctoral studies, he became one of the irreplaceable mentors of my career.

 

[su_dropcap style=”flat” size=”2″]Q[/su_dropcap]

 If you were not a chemist, what would you like to be, and why?

 

[su_dropcap style=”flat”]A[/su_dropcap]

If you are asking me what I would like to be right now, I would like to be the pirate king (a reference to the popular manga series “One Piece”). If you are asking me what I wanted to become back when I made my career choice, I had a few possibilities. When I had entered university, I had forgotten entirely about the concept of “philosophy in chemistry”, and I had been wandering both within Japan and in foreign lands, as I had been intensely studying Russian literature through the works of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I wanted to be either a trophy husband or a backpacking drifter back then. When it was time for me to decide which laboratory I wanted to join, all my colleagues avoided Professor Tabushi’s group because it was reputed to be merciless; I nonchalantly joined his laboratory and my life has since changed. I was given the opportunity to study abroad in the U.S. in the midst of my graduate studies (it was actually an expulsion, however) and I then thought that it might not be so bad to wander around the world as a chemist. After obtaining my Ph. D., I was fortunately picked up by Kyushu University… and here I am today.

 

[su_dropcap style=”flat” size=”2″]Q[/su_dropcap]

 Currently, what kind of research are you conducting? Moreover, how do you foresee its future development?

 

[su_dropcap style=”flat”]A[/su_dropcap]

In our laboratory, we try to control biological systems using the concepts of chemistry, and conversely, we try to create complex molecular ensembles that resemble biological systems. We wish to achieve these goals using chemical tools—I take the liberty to call this “cellular organic chemistry”. In more general terms, our laboratory wants to develop chemistry that can even be conducted in a hodgepodge of “impurities” like in biological systems. For more details, please visit our group website, but recent developments include the novel functionalization of a specific protein target inside cells or in organisms, or the synthesis of semi-wet biomaterials that mimic cellular environments.

 

[su_dropcap style=”flat” size=”2″]Q[/su_dropcap]

 If you could have dinner with any famous person from the past, who would it be, and why?

 

[su_dropcap style=”flat”]A[/su_dropcap]

I am quite a contemporary kind of person, so I never really felt like I wanted to eat with someone from the past. Well, perhaps I would like to have dinner and talk to citizens from the Greek and Roman Empires, Chinese and Japanese citizens from circa. 3rd century A.D., and Europeans from the Age of Discovery (15th to 17th century A.D.).

 

[su_dropcap style=”flat” size=”2″]Q[/su_dropcap]

 When was the last time you performed an experiment in the laboratory, and what was it about?

 

[su_dropcap style=”flat”]A[/su_dropcap]

Well… when I was still an assistant professor at age 32, I was mentoring two senior undergrads and a Master’s student, and I think the last time I ran experiments was when I was helping one of the undergrads’ research project. The research project entailed the joining of a porphyrin (a heme derivative) with a ruthenium complex to synthesize a photochemically-driven protein, and I think it was a condensation reaction between heme and a bipyridine ligand. I started running a column in the fumehood to purify the crude product, but then I had to leave to attend a meeting… followed by other student-related priorities… and more paperwork… and finally, without isolation of the pure product, I believe the undergrad eventually cleaned up after my mess. I conducted some analyses and measurements after that as well, but in terms of synthesis, I think that will be my final experiment.

 

[su_dropcap style=”flat” size=”2″]Q[/su_dropcap]

 If you were stranded on a desert island, which book or song/piece of music would you like to have with you? Please single out your favorite example.

 

[su_dropcap style=”flat”]A[/su_dropcap]

For books, I would take all the works by Kotaro Sawaki, or all the volumes of “One Piece”. Perhaps also all the works by Ryotaro Shiba, since it’s a current interest of mine—even though I’ve barely read any of his works yet.

 

[su_dropcap style=”flat” size=”2″]Q[/su_dropcap]

 Do you have any suggestions as to whom we should interview next?

 

[su_dropcap style=”flat”]A[/su_dropcap]

Looking at the list of former interviewees, maybe it would be good to name a few people who are sort of in the middle of their career—so maybe someone who is a bit older than me, and someone who would forgive my impudence. Let’s see… Professors Naoki Sugimoto, Kazunari Akiyoshi, Takuzo Aida, Eiji Yashima, and Hisakazu Mihara.

 

 Related Link

Hamachi Group

[su_box title=”Itaru Hamachi” style=”bubbles”]Professor Itaru Hamachi was born in Fukuoka in 1960, and obtained his B. S. in 1983 and his Ph. D. in 1988 from Kyoto University. In the same year, he became an assistant staff scientist at Kyushu University. He became an assistant professor in 1992, and a full professor in 2001, both at Kyushu University. Since 2005, he has taken up a professorship at the Department of Synthetic Chemistry and Biological Chemistry, Graduate School of Engineering at Kyoto University, where he oversees the Bioorganic Chemistry Track.[/su_box]

 

Japanese version writtenhere on date Sep 28, 2010; English translation written on Jan 29, 2014.

 

Leave a Reply