Aitziber L. Cortajarena: “Listening to music, we seek to be able to write the score”

Galarraga Aiestaran, Ana

Elhuyar Zientzia

Aitziber L. Cortajarena (Bilbao, 1974) has recently been appointed scientific director of CIC biomGUNE. Its trajectory has been long and fruitful. Ph.D. in Biochemistry, Universidad del País Vasco, 2002. Then, before his visit to CIC biomasGUNE, he has researched at Yale University (USA), Weizmann Institute (Israel) and IMDEA Nanociencia (Madrid). He leads several European projects and in 2019 Ikerbasque awarded him a prize in recognition of his professional career as a researcher and his scientific contributions.
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Doctor in Biochemistry
What has surprised you most, altered or fascinated you since you started working?

Proteins are known to be made up of 20 amino acid chains. And how these amino acids are placed, it creates one structure or another, depending on which the protein will have one function or another. A change in one of the amino acids can cause a mutation, a disease. That's been research since I started my work.

And at first, when I was doing the thesis, we didn't know much about the structure. At that time, structural biology began to develop. So we got to know the structure of proteins. And knowing how amino acid sequences defined the structure was a revolution for us, because that's when we started to understand why a functional loss or disease is due to a change in an amino acid.

It also allowed us to start the rational design of proteins. So in the lab, we're creating amino acid sequences, the structures we want them to perform the desired functions: an inhibitor, a sensor -- this has been a certain revolution. Add new computing tools like artificial intelligence. As a result, our area has gained a great deal of momentum.

What would you like to witness the revolution or the discovery?

Despite the great evolution, we are still far from achieving our objectives. Because what we're looking for is to predict what the sequence of a protein will be from the function that we're looking for, whether therapeutic or technological: materials, energy capture systems.

So my dream would be that. To be able to fully understand this code and imagine a protein with the structure and desired function to solve a problem, biomedical or technological, and to be able to write this sequence, produce protein and be able to do what we have foreseen.

We are still far from doing so. However, when I started to do the thesis, amino acids represented them as pellets, and now we can see their molecular structure. So knowing sequence and structure, we can predict function. It's like being able to read the score. What we're looking for is harder: listen to music, write the score. My dream is to be able to do it.

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