Polarography Today: Conversations with Leading Czech Scientists

In my last post, I showed you the origins of polarography, an analytical technique that dates back to 1922 and whose inventor Jaroslav Heyrovský was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1959. While the appearance of polarography equipment has changed a lot since the early days, the working principle is till the same and the technique is still in use and indispensable, especially for research. I talked to two leading Czech scientists who use polarography in their research to find out how the technique is being used today.

The Department of Physical Chemistry at the Masaryk University of Brno

The CEO of Metrohm Czech Republic knows the Department of Physical Chemistry at the Masaryk University in Brno well, because he used to be a Ph.D. student here. He’s known Prof. Libuše Trnková, whom we met with during my visit, since those times. Prof. Trnková is a leading scientist in the field of theoretical physics and chemistry and has developed new polarographic methods and has used them to study nucleic acids (DNA and RNA).

The Institute of Biophysics of the Czech Academy of Sciences

A final highlight of my trip and in our exploration of the history of polarography occurred on my last day in Czechia: we met with Prof. Emil Paleček at the Biophysical Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Brno. Prof. Paleček is 88 years old and still active in research. He started working with polarography in his early studies, rather by necessity than by choice: the lab where he was supposed to study DNA was poorly equipped so he had no choice than to make do with what was available—a polarograph. To his surprise, the analysis of DNA by oscillographic polarography produced several signals, which reflected changes in the DNA structure. Using these signals, he was able to answer important questions concerning the molecule of life. However, other electrochemists didn’t approve of his research: at the time, DNA wasn’t recognized in Czechoslovakia as the carrier of genetic information. Universities taught the views of Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko, which ascribed heredity not to specific molecules, but to the body of each living being in its entirety.

Jaroslav Heyrovský, however, supported Paleček. After all, when he received the Nobel Prize in 1959, Severo Ochoa and Arthur Kornberg were on the stage with him, two scientists who had studied the mechanisms of the biological synthesis of DNA and RNA. Heyrovský thus knew what DNA was.

Following the realization that DNA alone doesn’t explain all biological function and processes, Prof. Paleček’s interest has shifted to studying proteins rather than genetic material, in particular, in relation to the occurrence and the detection of cancer. Listen to his own account in the video below!

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