Hemo­cyanin is found in the blood of arthropod species such as horseshoe crabs and func­tions sim­i­larly to hemo­globin in human blood. Wiki­media Commons | Courtesy

Senior Micah Heinz knew little about the oxygen-trans­porting protein hemo­cyanin before last summer, so nat­u­rally, he researched it through the Hillsdale College LAUREATES program.

“It wasn’t some­thing I was familiar with before, but I’ve been inter­ested in it ever since,” Heinz said.

Hemo­cyanin is found in the blood of arthropod species such as horseshoe crabs and func­tions sim­i­larly to hemo­globin in human blood, except it uses copper instead of iron to bind oxygen.

“It’s a very common protein in a lot of arthropod species, and we don’t under­stand the mech­anism of binding itself,” Heinz said. “Various people [at Hillsdale] have been working on this project.”

Heinz’s research was directed at under­standing the mech­anism of oxygen binding in hemo­cyanin. To do so, he exper­i­mented with syn­thetic models of the protein using nitrogen-based ligands.

Pre­vious research done on hemo­cyanin has focused on other unsuc­cessful ligands, so Heinz exper­i­mented with alter­na­tives. While he was able to suc­cess­fully get the oxygen to bind, he couldn’t get it to release. As it stands, some ligands that have been studied yielded better results than others.

Heinz said he modeled the research on Kenneth Karlin’s 1987 exper­i­ments with hemo­cyanin at State Uni­versity of New York at Albany, with the nitrogen-based ligand being one of the various twists.

“We were mod­eling our research on research done about 30 years ago and were trying dif­ferent ligands than the ones used there,” Heinz said.

Dean of Natural Sci­ences and Pro­fessor of Chem­istry Christopher VanOrman said the research has been going on at Hillsdale for more than 15 years.

“It’s just fun­da­mental research to under­stand a problem,” VanOrman said. “What I’d like to do is try to syn­thesize the same ligand that Karlin did.”

That’s exactly what senior Jacob Hann, who is con­tinuing the research at the end of this semester, will attempt to do.

“The type of chem­istry this falls under is inor­ganic chem­istry, which is the chem­istry of metal-ligand com­plexes and some of the things they can do,” Hann said. “A spe­cific type of metal-ligand complex is these pro­teins. Any­thing that uses oxygen to make energy for itself will have some sort of protein that binds with oxygen and delivers it to the body.”

Hann said the objective of exper­i­men­tation is to observe a color change, which indi­cates the ligand in the syn­thetic model suc­cess­fully bound to the oxygen.

“Ulti­mately, what we’d like to accom­plish is we get a ligand and get it to complex with the copper and then

get it to reversibly bind with oxygen,” Hann said. “We have a solution with our complex and we bubble oxygen through it, and oxy­genate that solution. If you get this complex to bind with oxygen, there’s a color change.”

Heinz and Hann’s dif­ferent methods of exper­i­men­tation with hemo­cyanin are just

two examples of the ongoing process that is researching the protein and syn­the­sizing its active site.

“We didn’t get what we wanted, which is very common in sci­en­tific research, but we have good ideas for what other people can do to get better results,” Heinz said.

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Nathan is a junior at Hillsdale College studying Rhetoric and Public Address and Journalism. He is Sports Editor and beat reporter for the Football, Women's Basketball, and Baseball teams for the Hillsdale Collegian. When he's not watching or writing about sports, Nathan enjoys playing organ and singing. Originally from St. Louis Missouri, Nathan now lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana. You can follow Nathan on twitter @nategrime or Hillsdale Collegian Sports at @HDaleSports.