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Bioorthogonal Chemistry: Applications in Activity-Based Protein Profiling

The close interaction between organic chemi stry and biology goes back to the late 18th century, when the modern natural sciences began to take shape. After synthetic organic chemistry arose as a discipline, organic chemists almost immediately began to pursue the synthesis of naturally occurring compounds, thereby contributing to the understanding of their functions in biological processes. Research in those days was often remarkably interdisciplinary; in fact, it constituted chemical biology research before the phrase even existed. For example, histological dyes, both of an organic and inorganic nature, were developed and applied by independent researchers (Gram and Golgi) with the aim of visualizing cellular substructures (the bacterial cell wall and the Golgi apparatus).

Willems L.I., Linden W.A. van der, Li N., Li K.Y., Liu N., Hoogendoorn S., Marel G.A. van der, Florea B.I., Overkleeft H.S.
20 September 2011
DOI link

Over the years, as knowledge within the various fields of the natural sciences deepened, research disciplines drifted apart, becoming rather monodisciplinary. In these years, broadly ranging from the end of World War II to about the 1980s, organic chemistry continued to impact life sciences research, but contributions were of a more indirect nature. As an example, the development of the polymerase chain reaction, from which molecular biology and genetics research have greatly profited, was partly predicated on the availability of synthetic oligonucleotides. These molecules first became available in the late 1960s, the result of organic chemists pursuing the synthesis of DNA oligomers primarily because of the synthetic challenges involved.

Today, academic natural sciences research is again becoming more interdisciplinary, and sometimes even multidisciplinary. What was termed “chemical biology” by Stuart Schreiber at the end of the last century can be roughly described as the use of intellectually chemical approaches to shed light on processes that are fundamentally rooted in biology. Chemical tools and techniques that are developed for biological studies in the exciting and rapidly evolving field of chemical biology research include contributions from many areas of the multifaceted discipline of chemistry, and particularly from organic chemistry. Researchers apply knowledge inherent to organic chemistry, such as reactivity and selectivity, to the manipulation of specific biomolecules in biological samples (cell extracts, living cells, and sometimes even animal models) to gain insight into the biological phenomena in which these molecules participate.

In this Account, we highlight some of the recent developments in chemical biology research driven by organic chemistry, with a focus on bioorthogonal chemistry in relation to activity-based protein profiling. The rigorous demands of bioorthogonality have not yet been realized in a truly bioorthogonal reagent pair, but remarkable progress has afforded a range of tangible contributions to chemical biology research. Activity-based protein profiling, which aims to obtain information on the workings of a protein (or protein family) within the larger context of the full biological system, has in particular benefited from these advances. Both activity-based protein profiling and bioorthogonal chemistry have been around for approximately 15 years, and about 8 years ago the two fields very profitably intersected. We expect that each discipline, both separately and in concert, will continue to make important contributions to chemical biology research.

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