Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

Reactions: Steven Benner

Steven Benner directs the Westheimer Institute at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, and works at the interface between the physical sciences, informatics, natural history, and planetary science.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

As a child, I was a “rockhound”, and became familiar with the Periodic Table by way of the specimens that I collected. Also, like many young lads, I was a pyromaniac, and chemistry represents a socially acceptable redirection of this human trait. Of course, both traits (collecting rocks, burning things) date back to the Paleolithic in the human species (at least).

2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?

I would probably be a middle school science teacher. There is a huge need for people in this space, to motivate and educate students at a very critical time in their development.

3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?

Since I started the Westheimer Institute ten years ago, my lab has tried to do “big” things across disciplines, something difficult to do within standard academic structures. To pay the bills, we develop new kinds of DNA to diagnose diseases, use dynamic combinatorial chemistry to create small molecule therapeutic agents, and work to create new forms of life under the “synthetic biology” paradigm. We resurrect ancestral genes and proteins from now-extinct organisms to bring “the experimental method” to bear on hypotheses in natural history that might tell us more about terran life. We very much want to understand how to extract information from the huge volumes of error-ridden DNA sequences that NextGen sequencing is producing. As members of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, we worry about how life began and how it might be distributed in the cosmos, including on Mars and Titan.

4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?

It is a common misperception that historical figures would be intrinsically interesting to have dinner with. Aristotle, Newton, Franklin or Einstein may have been brilliant (compared to us), but we modern day folks of modest intelligence are the cultural descendants of them all. Thus, any one of them would find modern college freshmen more fascinating than we would find them, especially if we showed them our iPads, and nearly all of the information flow over the dinner table would go from us to them. And it would be frustrating. For example, the entire evening with Aristotle could well be spent explaining why the water on the table was H2O.

So my choices would target ancestral technologies that we have lost. For example, when Cleopatra went to visit Julius Caesar, she carried a fresh rose from Egypt. We have lost the ability to preserve flowers in this way. I would love to meet the guy who knew how to do this 2000 years ago. Also, the recipe for Greek Fire is lost, despite its having kept Byzantium alive in the Middle Ages far past expectations given its geopolitical context. I would love to speak to the guy who knew how to make it. More pyromania, I suppose.

5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?

Last week, before I went to the ACS meeting. I took several sets of nmr spectra of a series of arsenate esters over a range of pHs and temperatures. The goal was to see if DNA having its phosphate esters replaced by arsenate linkages, too unstable to survive in most environments on Earth, might be stable in the subsurface oceans on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. There, the water-ammonia mixtures are cold, and the pH is high, both increasing the stability of arsenate esters.

6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?

Answers to these “If you were a tree, what tree would you be?” questions are less interesting than they seem at first glance. If I were stranded on a desert island, the book that I would want would be entitled “How to Survive on a Desert Island”. I would have taken the complete collection of Mozart Piano Concerti with me, only to discover that the sand on the desert island destroys CD players.

7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?

Christopher Switzer at the University of California at Riverside, Andrew Ellington at the University of Texas, Clemens Richert at the University of Stuttgart, or Joseph Piccirilli at the University of Chicago. They all have interesting visions of how chemistry might be directed towards “big” questions.


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