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Biological Chemistry

Alfred Bader Award In Bioinorganic Or Bioorganic Chemistry

by Amanda Yarnell
February 11, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 6

Cane
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Credit: Suzanne S. Cane
David E. Cane, chemistry professor at Brown University.
Credit: Suzanne S. Cane

Sponsored by the Alfred R. Bader Fund

Natural product biosynthesis expert David E. Cane nearly missed his calling. As a young graduate student in E. J. Corey’s lab at Harvard University, he turned down the opportunity to explore the biosynthesis of steroids in favor of focusing on organic synthesis. Luckily, a second chance materialized in the form of a postdoc with Duilio Arigoni, an expert in the biosynthesis of terpene natural products at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich (ETH).

Cane, now 68 and a chemistry professor at Brown University, says he was instantly hooked: “I wanted to know how nature does organic chemistry.”

Today, Cane is “one of the most accomplished and respected scientists in natural product biosynthesis in the world,” says fellow natural products expert Chaitan Khosla of Stanford University, a longtime collaborator of Cane’s. “Over the past three decades he has made seminal contributions to our understanding of how polyketides, terpenes, and vitamin B-6 are synthesized in microorganisms.”

But Cane’s influence has extended far beyond just these natural products. “The field of natural product biosynthetic chemistry has lately undergone a revolution as a result of the synergistic application of chemical and biological tools,” Khosla says. “Nobody has been more instrumental in setting the tone for this sea change than David E. Cane.”

Cane agrees the tools of his trade have changed dramatically since he got his start. In the early 1970s, scientists typically would feed a labeled precursor to an organism, see what the organism spit out and where the compounds were labeled, and then take an educated guess at what chemistry might have transpired.

As Cane began to build his lab at Brown, he championed the widespread utility of 13C nuclear magnetic resonance for biosynthetic investigations. Later he adopted recombinant DNA technology to make and customize enzymes involved in natural product biosynthesis; X-ray crystallography to better understand those enzymes’ structures; the tools of mechanistic enzymology to quench and dissect complex, multistep enzymatic reactions; and genomic sequencing methods to pinpoint the machinery that uncultured microbes use to make natural products.

Cane credits his many collaborators—including Khosla, Washington State University plant biochemist Rodney Croteau, and University of Pennsylvania crystallographer David W. Christianson—for helping him take advantage of these tools.

Cane’s collegiality was the key to those collaborations, colleagues note. Cane is quick to share information, reagents, and advice, says Salk Institute for Biological StudiesJoseph P. Noel, an expert in the evolution of plant metabolism. “He’s more concerned with learning something new rather than who finished first.”

A New York City native, Cane completed his bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. degrees at Harvard. After a postdoc stint at ETH, he joined the faculty at Brown in 1973. Among his many other awards are the Ernest Guenther Award in the Chemistry of Natural Products, the Cope Scholar Award, and the Repligen Award in Chemistry of Biological Processes of the ACS Division of Biological Chemistry. But when asked about his most notable accomplishments, Cane points to coediting a 2003 book of letters his father sent his mother while serving in World War II, offering an eyewitness account of some of the most dramatic events of the war.

Cane will present the award address before the ACS Division of Organic Chemistry.

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