Five minutes with: an antibiotic hunter
In the fourth of a series of interviews with young and mid-career researchers, Eloise Gibson talks to biochemist Emily Parker about how her passion for chemistry led to a job hunting for handy natural compounds.
To kill bacteria, without hurting their human hosts, you need to work out what separates the microbe from the person.
Emily Parker got into biological chemistry out of sheer wonder at the way chemical reactions drive all life on the planet.
Now she’s trying to work out how to use her skills to attack bacteria, like the ones that cause TB and meningitis, by finding their unique weak spots – weak spots that aren’t shared by their human hosts.
Parker hopes the work may lead to new antibiotics that stop harmful microbes from thriving, without affecting human cells.
Parker’s research at Victoria University in Wellington focuses on tapping into the power of natural molecules.
She says nature is a very clever chemist – but it doesn’t always produce enough of any particular compound for humans to be able to harness the substance.
For example, a potentially handy substance might be made in tiny quantities by a fungus that lives only on a particular species of tree.
By finding ways to make such natural compounds in the lab, chemists can build on the blueprint from useful natural products and produce enough of them for humans to benefit, without, for example, having to chop down trees to harvest a handy compound-producing fungus.
Aside from hunting for potential antibiotics, Parker is looking for ways to produce new versions of naturally-occurring plant compounds in the lab, including ones that make good pesticides. The goal of the work is to use one plant’s natural chemical defenses against pests to benefit other, human-grown crops as well.
The way she sees it, chemistry drives everything, and her job is to take some of nature’s best chemistry and find ways for humans to get the benefits.