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Tim Jamison, ORGANIC CHEMIST, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Tim Jamison

"Because I'm surrounded by so many smart and enthusiastic people, I'm learning all the time."

What He's Doing

Every so often, the clear blue waters off the shores of Florida, Maine, California and other coasts around the world turn cloudy and dark. The culprit? Huge growths of microscopic algae. Some of these algal blooms—often called "red tides" after some of the blooms' reddish hue-release toxins that choke, paralyze and kill marine animals. People can be hurt, too, if they eat these poisoned creatures or even breathe in vapors from infested areas.

Tim Jamison is trying to find out how these harmful algae make their poisons. His lab recently managed to create one of the toxins in a way that could plausibly happen in nature. Scientists are still a long way from understanding everything about red tides, Jamison says, but his work may help solve the puzzle.

San Jose, California
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
My wife and I walk to work and often go on long walks together, 6-15 miles at a time.
I've seen every episode of The Wire several times.
I wasn't really interested in science until high school. At various times I wanted to be a professional skateboarder; a baseball, soccer and racquetball player; and a journalist.

Although there are several suspects for what causes harmful algal blooms—including global warming, carbon dioxide emissions, runoff rich in fertilizers and other pollutants, and the algae's natural life cycle-scientists are still trying to understand the problem. Uncovering the origin of red tides as well as the way they work is essential in combating them, says Jamison.

His Findings

For 25 years, chemists weren't able to make their own red tide toxins—at least not in a way that algae probably do. Jamison came up with two ideas that allowed him to break through the barriers that had frustrated researchers.

Like other chemists before him, Jamison started with what scientists think are the red tide toxin's building blocks, simple carbon-and-oxygen molecules called epoxides. One theory said that linking epoxides in a chain in the right solution would trigger a series of spontaneous reactions to form the complete toxin. This requires one of the epoxides' two carbon-oxygen bonds to break. But when chemists experimented with these chains, the wrong bond kept breaking. So Jamison did something different. He coaxed the reaction in the right direction by building pieces of middle-stage toxin molecules and adding them to the mix.

Then, Jamison put the chain in water—just ordinary water, with a neutral pH of 7—and boiled it, "like we were making tea," he says. Because chemists often work with oily substances that don't like water, they rarely use water in chemical reactions (although biologists use it all the time). But water did the trick in this case, and the epoxides sprang into a red tide toxin.

Meet a Chemist


This page last reviewed on April 22, 2011