Detroit researcher receives national award

March 21, 2000

Studies chemical reactions lasting just millionths of a second

Chemist Martin E. Newcomb of Dearborn, Mich., will be honored on March 28 by the world's largest scientific society for his efforts to understand ultrafast chemical reactions, such as those that process fats in the body. He will receive the James Flack Norris Award in Physical Organic Chemistry from the American Chemical Society at its 219th national meeting in San Francisco.

"If you understand a reaction, you can control that reaction," declared Newcomb, a professor of chemistry at Wayne State University.

The reactions Newcomb studies use free radicals to attach, clip or convert one molecule into another. "Thirty years ago, researchers thought that radicals in biological processes were limited to damage events," such as aging, Newcomb said. "Now we realize that all DNA, for example, is produced in radical processes."

These compounds form during the fleeting, intermediate steps of radical reactions. Because radicals are unstable, these reactions occur extremely quickly. Typically, the lifetime of a radical reaction is counted in millionths of seconds, explained the physical organic chemist.

Newcomb and his team trace the individual steps of such reactions, analyzing which radical intermediates form and measuring how long each step takes.

One reaction is orchestrated by a type of protein in the liver called cytochrome P450. This enzyme family adds oxygen to, or oxidizes, nearly everything it encounters. It breaks down drugs and fats, makes cancer-causing compounds, and performs a host of other functions.

To solve for the unknowns in the various reaction steps, Newcomb substitutes what he does know: the rates at which molecules he has built, called probes, react with P450. His group uses short bursts of laser light to 'time' the reactions.

"His work has electrified the P450 area," wrote Dennis Curran of the University of Pittsburgh to second the award nomination. "Marty has proposed completely new mechanisms after many years of experiment and debate."

When asked how he ended up in chemistry, Newcomb described himself as "one of those kids who tried to blow up the basement." He added, "Later, as I understood its puzzle-solving aspects, I found it an interesting challenge."

The James Flack Norris Award in Physical Organic Chemistry is sponsored by the Northeastern Section of the American Chemical Society.
A nonprofit organization with a membership of 161,000 chemists and chemical engineers, the American Chemical Society publishes scientific journals and databases, convenes major research conferences, and provides educational, science policy and career programs in chemistry. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

American Chemical Society

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