Besides perhaps the occasional glass of red wine, regular consumption of pretty much any form of alcohol is considered unhealthy. Indeed, if you were to ask a group of drinkers why they indulge in alcohol, their health would probably be pretty far down on the list of answers.
Alcohol is consumed all over the world by tens of millions of people for a variety of reasons; to forget, to remember, to be social, to fit in with everyone else, to cope with a particularly bad day, etc. For all of these “benefits,” though, there are a whole lot of negatives. Alcohol is linked to a host of health problems and diseases, and that’s not even mentioning the countless accidents, incidents, crimes, and regrets caused by excessive drinking.
Now, a fascinating and potentially major new study from The Ohio State University has uncovered a way to use alcohol for some real, tangible good. The research team has discovered how to turn alcohol into amino acids, often referred to as the “building blocks of life.”
All of the proteins in our bodies are made up of amino acids. But, besides being helpful after a good workout, amino acids are also frequently used as ingredients for new medicines. However, it’s proven quite expensive and difficult for scientists to create artificial amino acids for such purposes.
This is where alcohol may be able to lend a helping hand. Researchers say using alcohol to create new amino acids is much cheaper and more efficient. How is this possible? Via a complex process involving the selective identification and replacement of molecular bonds with “unprecedented precision.”
All in all, the study’s authors are confident their work may make it easier to produce certain medications.
“One of the coolest applications of this research is that we found a new way to make unnatural amino acids – sometimes used in medicines to target diseases while avoiding natural metabolism,” says senior study author David Nagib, a professor of chemistry at The Ohio State University, in a release. “And we may be able to use these unnatural amino acids to build new complex molecules that target various diseases.”
Without alcohol, the process of creating new amino acids for medicinal purposes is quite intricate and involves the use of three-dimensional geometry. Conversely, alcohol is both easily attainable and much more affordable.
To start, researchers examined alcohol samples at the atomic level. A single alcohol molecule is primarily made up of three substances; hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon. While examining an alcohol molecule, the research team figured out a way to break the bonds between hydrogen and carbon atoms and squeeze a nitrogen atom (a common element found in medicines) in between. This process is called “selective C-H functionalization.”
“Carbon-hydrogen is the most ubiquitous bond – think of a field of grass in a park. Each piece of grass is a carbon-hydrogen bond, and the challenge of C-H functionalization is how do you pick the exact blade of grass you want to turn into a rose and ignore all the rest?” Professor Nagib explains. “How do you be selective about which bond you’re transforming?”
As Professor Nagib says, choosing the right bond for this procedure is essential. Whenever a new medication is developed by chemists, molecules must be ordered and assembled just right. This ensures that the new medication only targets the intended disease, and not other “biologically important machinery.”
“In alcohol, there are pairs of equal carbon-hydrogen bonds, but those bonds are not equal in their spatial arrangement on the molecule,” Professor Nagib concludes. “And now we can grab one of them over the others to make amines with various three-dimensional shapes, which will allow construction of new chemical structures to make drugs that may serve as a better key.”
People have been using alcohol for cultural, social, and pseudo-medicinal purposes for centuries, but these revelations may lead to alcohol’s most important and beneficial use among humans to date.
The full study can be found here, published in Nature Chemistry.