INSIDE Chico State
0 September 25, 2003
Volume 34 Number 2
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico







Briefly Noted




A Dunk in the Combinatorial Tank

Professor Chris Nichols'

Professor Chris Nichols' demonstrates the automation robot his students use to set up experiments of the kind widely used in the pharmaceutical industry. Funds for the robot came from a CSU Educational Research and Biotechnology grant.

Real-life chemistry applications flourish in campus lab

Anyone who hasn't dropped in on an organic chemist lately might be surprised by what's cooking in the lab. Compounds and carbon chains, those dimly remembered burdens of high school chemistry, have teamed up with automation robotics in the subdiscipline known to the initiated as combinatorial chemistry.

Such marvels are all in a day's work at any major pharmaceutical company, but, until last spring, they weren't common within the CSU system. Thanks to a $20,000 robot grant from the California State University Program in Education Research and Biotechnology and some shrewd shopping by CSU, Chico chemistry professor Chris Nichols, students now have an opportunity not only to familiarize themselves with the latest pharmaceutical equipment and techniques but also explore a bit of the territory shared by organic chemistry and molecular biology.

"It's basically a pipetting machine," said Nichols of the new lab tool. "It has an arm with a needle attached that can drop a specific amount of a compound into an array of flasks, depending on how it's programmed. It's flexible about the number of compounds and the size of flasks we can use -- from test tubes to large bottles -- and it has an accuracy of plus or minus 1 percent." Nichols obtained the $20,000 machine for $13,000 and spent the rest of the grant on other equipment and chemicals.

For last semester's project, students measured 14 different compounds into a six-tube by eight-tube array of test tubes, which the robot then combined into 48 variations. A drop of each was placed on quarter-inch discs that were placed on a bacteria-soaked agar plate and incubated overnight. With some compounds, the bacteria grew right up to the disc; with others, a "moat" formed around it, indicating that compound's effectiveness as a bacteriostat, or agent that inhibits bacterial growth.

"This is what real-world chemistry is going to look like if students end up working in the combinatorial tank at a pharmaceutical company," observed Nichols. "Sometimes you look for natural products and build on that scaffold. Sometimes you start with a simple reaction -- something you just mix together and it automatically reacts. You make a large number of compounds and find the ones that show better biological activity."

Taran March

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