F&M Stories

Biology, Psychology Interests Lead Researcher to Potential New Antibiotics

As Hailan Yu synthesizes holomycin and its derivatives, she plows relatively untouched ground in her chemistry studies for new antibiotic compounds.

"Despite the interesting biological activity, not much research has been done on what role each part of the molecule plays in its antibacterial activity and whether structural modification could improve its potency," the Franklin & Marshall senior said.

As a biochemistry and molecular biology major with a minor in psychology, "Hailan has an interesting interdisciplinary approach of being really interested in both organic chemistry and biochemistry. That makes finding the right doctoral adviser challenging because Hailan wants to do everything," Assistant Professor of Chemistry Sarah Tasker said.

Yu's research involves understanding holomycin's molecular roles and exploring what structural modifications can be made to the antibiotic compound.

"Last summer, we synthesized holomycin following an existing route from simple chemical reagents, generated a variety of derivatives, and tested the activities of those compounds against bacteria," she said. "Currently, we are exploring a new route of synthesizing holomycin that will allow us to access derivatives with structural modifications that cannot be achieved using existing syntheses."

Working together in the laboratory one afternoon, Tasker said, "We're synthesizing potential new antibiotics, which is obviously really important for the future. While we're clearly not a major pharmaceutical research company, we're following much the same process by making and testing new compounds in the lab."

To test their compounds against bacteria, the professor said, "Hailan sets up all the reactions and purifications for all the compounds, making sure that the effects we are seeing are due to this compound rather than impurities. ... What we're doing is trying to meld the best of both worlds, to be inspired by nature, but not constrained by it."

Yu, who intends to study for a doctorate in chemical biology, said she was inspired to pursue this research because of the decline in new antibiotics worldwide.

"Society is now really pushed back against the wall in terms of the options we have against bacterial infections, which makes developing new antibiotic treatments a really important task of the scientific community," she said. "We hope that our research can provide some insights for developing antibiotics with structures similar to holomycin in the future."

Having been accepted into five doctoral programs, Yu said, "I am now in the process of deciding which is the best fit."

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