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Major Scientific Interests: Bioorthogonal chemistry, chemical glycobiology, protein engineering, bionanotechnology, tuberculosis
Carolyn Bertozzi made her name as a pioneer of chemical glycobiology, an area of science dealing with the function of glycans on the surface of cells. These sugar residues play an important role in the communication and the metabolism of cells and undergo changes during illnesses. She established an entirely new avenue of research in order to be able to observe the glycans in living cells: the field of bioorthogonal chemistry.
Carolyn Bertozzi researches at the interfacing boundaries of chemistry, biology and medicine. By concentrating on glycans, she entered into an area of science that had till then hardly been investigated at all. It is probable that a large part of all proteins is glycosylated. Bertozzi seeks to understand what role these sugars have in our biological processes and in what specific ways the patterns of glycosylation change in the course of human aging or during illnesses. Methods for early recognition and possibly even therapies for maladies like cancer, infectious diseases or autoimmune diseases could be developed based on this investigation. The fact that there was no procedure with which these molecules could be specifically observed represented one of the biggest challenges. The conventional methods of fluorescence microscopy were not suited to the task. This has now, however, become possible due to the so-called bioorthogonal chemistry developed by Bertozzi. This enables molecules in living cells to be chemically modified in such a way that they become observable. For this, small “reporter molecules” are infused into cells that are themselves integrated into the sugars through the metabolism of the cell. In this way the glycans carry a kind of label by which they then – through the docking of other chemical substances – can be recognized and observed; it also opens up the possibility that they can be specifically addressed for therapeutic purposes. In order for this to function, the reporter molecule must be bioorthogonal, which means that it will not react with the complex and multifaceted biological environment and also be non-toxic.
In addition, Bertozzi developed further chemically based methods for modifying biological systems. These include a process for protein engineering that enables synthetic proteins to be built, which has led to new ways for developing protein-based materials. Her agenda also includes nano tools like nano needles or particles that can be used to examine cells in a non-destructive way. And not least, she has dedicated herself to researching tubercular pathogens, an area of concern with global dimensions.
She founded the company Redwood Bioscience in order to make her discoveries available to medical practitioners.
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