Faculty Focus: For chemistry prof, the excitement of exploration
by Kurt Kleiner
Heinz-Bernhard (Bernie) Kraatz has been obsessed with chemistry ever since he received a chemistry set as a child growing up in Germany. Now he’s a professor in UTSC’s Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences, exploring new ways to diagnose and treat disease.
Kraatz, who came to UTSC this year from the University of Western Ontario, is head of a research group that investigates functional biomaterials and sensors. The group designs useful materials from the ground up, starting with basic building blocks such as amino acids.
For instance, Kraatz and his group are working on devices which can quickly and directly detect viruses such as HIV and hepatitis. Other work could allow scientists or food inspectors to easily identify the species a tissue sample comes from.
Kraatz’s first exposure to chemistry as a child involved simple experiments with a chemistry set, such a producing the smell of rotten eggs. “It’s a funny thing to say, but that was really a formative moment. I was able to make smells, and do things that I really had no idea about, but I was able to do things that would anger my mom quite significantly. So there was an immediate payback. And then of course it became a passion.”
Kraatz went on to receive a PhD from the University of Calgary in inorganic chemistry, the branch of chemistry which deals with everything except carbon-based organic compounds. Since living things are made up of organic compounds, inorganic chemistry normally has little to do with medicine and biology. But Kraatz quickly realized that his interests crossed disciplines.
For instance, he’s working to build probes with a molecule called ferrocene. Ferrocene consists of an atom of iron with an organic ring affixed to each end. By adjusting the chemical properties of the organic rings, Kraatz can engineer the ends of the ferrocene to stick to specific molecules.
In one project, he attached one end of the ferrocene molecule to a silicon chip, and designed the other end so that it would latch onto a protein found on the outside of the hepatitis C virus. When the ferrocene grabs the virus, the change in the molecule’s electrical potential can be detected, and the device will signal that the virus is present.
Kraatz and his team have also attached molecules of DNA to a silicon chip and tested them to see if they contain a single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) – that is, a variation in the DNA which can cause disease. The technique could be used for diagnosis and screening. SNPs can also be used to distinguish one species from another, raising the promise of an easy tissue test that could, for instance, identify which animal was used in a particular food product.
Kraatz says that hetries to impart his own enthusiasm about chemistry to his students.
“It's the excitement,” Kraatz explains. “I like to cook, I like to travel. To me it's sort of the same coin. You try to discover new things, whether that's cooking something or whether you're trying to explore another country. It's all part of that same spirit of being an explorer.”
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