Andrés Bustamante: From Iquique to viral polymerases

Andrés Bustamante: From Iquique to viral polymerases

By Eduardo Kessi

Andrés Ignacio Bustamante Gatica is Iquiqueño to the bone. He did his high school studies at the Liceo Academia Iquique of which he remembers with special affection his teachers of Chemistry and Biology (Reynaldo García and Enrique Muñoz respectively). He then migrated to Santiago to study Biochemistry at the Faculty of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences of the University of Chile where he obtained his professional degree and the degree of Magister in Biochemistry. Later he obtained the Degree of Doctor of Science, with a mention in Molecular Cell Biology and Neuroscience at the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Chile.

During his high school Andrés showed great interest in Chemistry and Biology and a lot of curiosity to know how scientific knowledge was generated. That led him to research careers with scientific orientation and he decided on Biochemistry. In his words "during the development of the career emerged the possibility of doing a Master's degree with an undergraduate link. Finally, at the end of the degree I was clear that I wanted to pursue an academic career to contribute to the generation of knowledge. Therefore, I decided to continue with Doctoral studies".

Andrés recognizes the contribution made to his training by Drs. Mauricio Báez and Jorge Babul. Indeed, "during my Master's thesis I worked with Dr. Mauricio Báez. For the doctoral thesis I returned to work under the direction of Dr. Báez with the co-tutelage of Dr. Jorge Babul. During the undergraduate/Master's degree I was very interested in the problem of protein folding. Dr. Baez was beginning his line of research by studying proteins with interesting topological properties – knots – that constituted an ideal model to be studied by optical tweezers. As it was a cutting-edge issue, I wanted to be part of the implementation of this type of studies in the country. Then, for the PhD thesis I decided to deepen these studies by characterizing the effect of non-trivial topologies – knots and oligomerization by domain exchange (domain swapping, which was studied by the group of Dr. Jorge Babul) – on the kinetics of protein folding. Since optical tweezers allow manipulation of the unfolded state of proteins, I thought it was a good way to be able to answer some basic questions about these processes."

Dr. Andrés Bustamante is currently initiating a line of research in mechano-chemistry of viral polymerases of nucleic acids at the level of individual molecules. "During the undergraduate and PhD I discovered the biophysics of single molecules, conducting studies of mechanical disturbance and protein folding using optical tweezers. I found it to be a very interesting way to ask general questions about universal mechanisms of operating in the living world. Forces are an important factor in cellular activities and are usually overlooked. In the case of my research, nucleic acid polymerases (and others like it) require exerting a force to translocate their substrates and thus fulfill their function. Thus, the generation and application of forces is a central mechanism in activities fundamental to the living world and have been little explored. Using single-molecule manipulation techniques allows us to explore these mechanisms."

None of the above has been easy, especially because of the effect that the pandemic has had on scientific research activities. Andrés relates that "I was completely paralyzed during 2020, which was the first year (of three) of the Postdoctoral project. Thus, I lost a year to obtain the necessary results to complete the objectives of the project. In addition, imports of the different products became more expensive and waiting times became much longer. That has made achieving the project's goals more difficult." In this regard, he adds that the options offered by the National Agency for Research and Development (ANID) – for example, extending the last stage of the project for up to 12 months without additional funding – "are insufficient."

Not only the understanding of the structure of proteins has been a concern of this young researcher. Also, taking advantage of his visits to his native Iquique, he has given motivational talks for high school students which he has stressed that "when you love what you do there are no limits to achieve the goals you set for yourself". When asked what he recommends to high school students interested in Biochemistry, his answer is clear "I would recommend you to know the academic world better, so that you choose the scientific career knowing the reality of it. I would tell you that despite the difficulties and the little funding that exists, contributing to the development by generating scientific knowledge and working at the forefront of the known is a rewarding experience. But above all, I would recommend that you want to want what you do, because doing science requires perseverance, study and passion."

In another order of things, the view of Dr. Andrés Bustamante regarding scientific activity, and its institutionality, in our country is critical. In his opinion, the level of scientific activity in Chile is very high, but it is maintained only by the passion of those who carry out scientific work. He adds "Working conditions are precarious considering the high level of preparation of those working in science. I would like the scientific career to be considered more seriously by both the guild and the institutionality. Less as a romanticized activity (which is the vision that prevails today) and more as a formal job that has its demands and must also have its adequate reward and labor rights." In his opinion, "There is no system that promotes collaboration and regularization of scientific work." In this context, he indicates that "I see with suspicion that the implementation of a Ministry of Science has been nothing more than a change of name for the same institutionality."

Finally, when asked what he considers to be the contribution that scientists can make to the society in which they are inserted, his answer is clear "I believe that knowledge is power, the work of those who do science is to generate new knowledge to increase our understanding of nature, but also to allow us to manipulate it to our advantage. Scientific knowledge is humanity's most powerful tool, and our job is to bring it closer to people. I believe the most valuable thing scientists can deliver is education, teaching critical thinking that allows people to distinguish between good and bad sources of information, make evidence-based decisions, and generate constructive criticism. I would like to give that to the citizenry, tools that allow them to avoid deception and quackery. This becomes especially important in times of pandemic, where misinformation has caused a lot of damage generating doubts and confusion about vaccination, for example."