Master’s student at the University of Tartu Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, Ermo Leuska (36) loves working at night. “Daylight forces us into the same rhythm that society imposes on us, and I suppose in a sense we are animals that live in herds. In the morning, the sun rises and the cattle are let out to pasture, but if you manage to make yourself work all by yourself, the results are something else – that’s when big answers are born. I have seen how hugely ineffective an open office can be.”
It is not unusual for Leuska’s daily routine to change completely during an important experiment or for other work-related obligations. “My record was 56 hours without sleep, but at the end of it I was basically just a robot.” At the same time, working all night is something Leuska doesn’t recommend, if even for the reason that “weight gain from sleepless nights is quick to happen. It’s no good for metabolism. My own secret weapon in those late night working hours is dark chocolate. On the one hand, it is good for your, but if your organism doesn’t use all the energy, it is stored as fat.”
Leuska has set his own pace in the greater scheme of things as well. For example, he took a hiatus from university studies, because as a young head of family, the need for making money and doing business was more acute. At one point, however, Leuska felt a clear need to return to the academic sphere. In 2016 he successfully defended his bachelor’s thesis, and now, “in what you might even consider early middle age”, he is doing quite well in his master’s studies – except for three B’s, he has gotten all A’s.
Leuska talks about the genetics he loves so much in a very intense manner. For example, when he describes the structure of ribosomes found in cytoplasm, his hands grab at something the size of at least a melon in the air, and when they get going, they bounce and massage this invisible ball, which in actuality is so tiny that you can’t even see it with your regular light microscope, which magnifies things 2000 times. However, the ball is visible under an electron microscope, which makes it possible for Leuska to describe that a ribosome is actually “like a small sewing machine: the material goes in one end and the final product comes out the other.” The product that the ribosome “stitches together” from dozens of different amino acids following the patterns provided by DNA is protein. Life itself.
What interests Leuska most is one particular part of this “sewing machine” – its peptidyl transferase core. What happens when you take “molecular scissors”, take away a few “screws”, and then put them back one by one? Will the “product” get better or will the machine break down? “It has never been done before,” says Leuska, describing his experiment with the E. coli bacteria so vividly that it looks like he’s forgotten all about the large juice that is served at our meeting place, the hipster restaurant Ülo in Kalamaja, with a huge straw made of pasta.
“How likely is it that this will end up creating a monster?” I ask with the vigilance of a citizen, who knows nothing about genetics, but has still decided to be responsible and find out.
“When it comes to our experiments, the likelihood is zero, because the halving time for a manipulated E. coli bacterium is 100 minutes, while in the wild variant it is 20 minutes. Figuratively speaking, if you let a zoo animal out into the wild, its food will be eaten before he can manage to get to it; this animal does not have what it takes to make it in the wild.” However, the knowledge gleaned from experiments with these bacteria can successfully be transferred to higher organisms and, in theory, also to the treatment of serious diseases. “A cancer cell wants to grow, grow, grow, and for that it needs to produce protein. If we manage to specifically zero in and put the brakes on that process, it might be useful in cancer treatment down the line.”
The results of an experiment in which Leuska participated as a student have already been published as an article in the renowned journal Nature Communications.
Once work is done, Ermo spikes up his bangs, dresses in vintage style rockabilly clothing and plays American hits from the 50s and 60s with his band, from rock’n’roll to country. That’s because he also happens to be a musician, who has loved music as much as he has loved chemistry and physics since he was a child. Or then he might put on a suit and tie and play at the wedding of a happy couple. Weddings, where he has played and for which he has put on his musician’s hat, already number “around a thousand”, but he is not married yet himself. “We decided as a family that we would get married once the children are big enough to take part in the party.”
Everything in due time.
CITY OR COUNTRY: “City when you’re young, country when you’re older.”
CAT OR DOG: “Dog!”
WHITE OR RED: (long silence) “I associate this choice with biology, because they say that white biology is done at the lab and red biology is medicine. So I’d choose pink.”
TEA OR COFFEE: “These days it’s tea, because I am a huge coffee lover and can’t keep from drinking too much.”
LEFT OR RIGHT: “Left – I’m lefthanded.”