Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Nobel Laureate: James Batcheller Sumner


The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1946.

"for his discovery that enzymes can be crystallized"

In 1946, James Batcheller Sumner (1887-1955) won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for crystallizing the enzyme urease from jack bean [see: Dealing with Uric Acid and Monday's Molecule #48]. This was definitive proof that enzymes were proteins, something that was still controversial back when the work was done in the early 1920's.

The Presentation Speech was given by previous Nobel Prize winner Professor A. Tiselius, member of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Your Majesty, Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen.

In 1897 Eduard Buchner, the German research worker, discovered that sugar can be made to ferment, not only with ordinary yeast, but also with the help of the expressed juices of yeast which contain none of the cells of the Saccharomyces. The discovery was considered so important that in 1907 Buchner was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Why was this apparently somewhat trivial experiment considered to be of such significance? The answer to this question is self-evident, if the development within the research work directed on the elucidation of the chemical nature of the vital processes is followed. Here, as in other fields of research, progress has taken place step by step, and the conquest of new fields has often been very laborious. But there, more than in most fields, a tendency has showed itself to consider the unexplained as inexplicable - which is actually not strange where problems of life and the vital processes are concerned. Thus ordinary yeast consists of living cells, and fermentation was considered by the majority of research workers - among them Pasteur - to be a manifestation of life, i.e. to be inextricably associated with the vital processes in these cells. Buchner's discovery showed that this was not the case. It may be said that thereby, at a blow, an important class of vital processes was removed from the cells into the chemists' laboratories, to be studied there by the chemists' methods. It proved, too, that, apart from fermentation, combustion and respiration, the splitting up of protein substances, fats and carbohydrates, and many other similar reactions which characterise the living cell, could be imitated in the test tube without any cooperation at all from the cells, and that on the whole the same laws held for these reactions as for ordinary chemical processes. But - and this is a very important reservation - this was only possible if extracts or expressed juices of such cells were added to the solution in the test tube. It was then natural to assume that these cell juices or cell extracts contained some substance which had the capacity of initiating and maintaining the reactions and guiding them into the paths they follow in the cell. These unknown active substances were called enzymes or ferments, and the investigation of their effects became one of the principal problems of chemistry during the first decades of this century, which for the rest it still is.

The important question of the nature of the enzymes remained unsolved, however, in spite of the energetic efforts of the research workers. It is manifestly a question of substances of complicated structures, which are present in such extremely small amounts that they, so to speak, slip through the fingers when one tries to grasp them. It is really remarkable to see how far it was possible to get in the study of the effects of the enzymes and the course of the enzymatic reactions, without knowing anything definite about the nature of these very active substances, nay, even without even being quite clear that they were substances which could be isolated in the pure form at all.

In 1926, however, in connection with his studies of a special enzyme "urease", James B. Sumner of Cornell University, Ithaca, U.S.A. succeeded in producing crystals which exhibited strikingly great activity. The basic material was the bean of a South American plant, Canavalia ensiformis, in America called the "jack bean", and the crystals had an activity that was about 700 times as great as that of bean flour. What was still more important was that it was possible to dissolve the substance and re-crystallize it several times without its activity being affected. The crystals proved to consist of a protein substance. Sumner expressed the opinion that in reality this protein substance was the pure enzyme.

As is so often the case with important discoveries, this result will probably to a certain degree have "been in the air", in that at the time it had been assumed in many quarters that the enzymes were protein substances of quite a special nature. On the other hand, Willstätter, the German chemist and Nobel Prize winner, had carried out far-reaching purifying experiments with enzymes and had arrived at results which caused him to doubt whether it was a question of protein substances or carbohydrates at all. We know now that this was due to the fact that Willstätter's purifying methods yielded solutions which were all too weak for it to be possible for chemical reactions to give a definite result.

For the chemist crystallization is the final goal in the preparation of a substance in pure form. Even though crystallizability is not such a reliable criterion of purity in the case of protein substances as in that of simpler substances, nevertheless Sumner's results have now been accepted as verified and thus also accepted as the pioneer work which first convinced research workers that the enzymes are substances which can be purified and isolated in tangible quantities. Thereby the foundation was laid for a more detailed penetration of the chemical nature of these substances, on which an understanding of the reactions taking place in living cells must finally depend.

[Photo Credit: The photograph of urease crystals is from Sumner (1926) (urease crystals)]

Sumner, J.B. (1926) The Isolation and Crystallization of the Enzyme Urease. J. Biol. Chem. 69:435-441.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Larry for doing these. I especially like these posts because I really enjoy the histroy of how science has arrived to where it is today. It's really easy to overlook. This one, as I remember, was particularly important for protein chemistry and is an especially notable Nobel prize because Sumner did the work with only one arm (lost his arm at 17).