In the middle of the periodic table of elements, on the block that bridges the two jutting sides, is a series of elements known as transition metals. The electronic composition of transition metals makes them great catalysts for some of earth’s most life-enabling reactions. They mediate key reactions, for example, in photosynthesis and help convert nitrogen in the atmosphere so it can be used as a nutrient to sustain life.
“You can have these huge, greasy protein scaffolds made up of thousands of atoms of which at most maybe 10 are a transition metal,” says Kyle M. Lancaster, assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology, “and somehow those very few atoms are able to drive the most important reactions on the planet. What we do is try to understand what it is about an environment surrounding a transition metal—copper, iron, nickel, etcetera—that allows them to mediate very difficult reactions.”
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