Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Nobel Laureates: Archer Martin and Richard Synge


The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1952.

"for their invention of partition chromatography"

Archer John Porter Martin (1910 - 2002) and Richard Laurence Millington Synge (1914 - 1994) won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work on separating substances by partition chromatography.

The technique they developed was called paper chromatography but today there are many other, more effective, versions of partition chromatography. The example shown below is from Monday's Molecule #134 and it's taken from an article on paper chromatography.

In this example, a soluble extract of pigments from plant leaves is spotted at the bottom of a piece of paper and the end with the sample is placed in a suitable solvent such as a mixture of acetone and ether. The solvent rises up the paper by capillary action taking the dissolved pigments with it. The trick is to choose a solvent mixture where the pigments (or other compounds) are differentially soluble so they migrate at different rates and separate on the paper.

The theory behind partition chromatography is complex. It used to be part of graduate courses in biochemistry.

I still remember taking Chemistry 542 back in 1969 and learning about Craig's ideas of counter-current distribution. We even covered the Martin & Synge 1941 paper in the Biochemical Journal (Biochem J. 35:1358). I still have my notes.

And I still get anxious whenever I hear the words "theoretical plates."

Martin & Synge, and others, developed techniques for separating amino acids and this was the basis of the sequencing technology employed by Fred Sanger for determining the amino acid sequence of insulin.

Back in 1952 it must have seemed unusual to be awarding a Nobel prize for chromatography. That's why the first part of the Presentation Speech explains why the discovery is important.

Nobel Laureates
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen.

This year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry is awarded for the discovery of a method for the separation of substances from complicated mixtures.

How can it happen, one may ask, that something apparently so commonplace as a separation method should be rewarded by a Nobel Prize? The answer is that from the very beginnings of chemistry until our own time, methods for separating substances have occupied a key position in this science. Even today, in Holland, chemistry is called "Scheikunde", or "the art of separation", and even today some of chemistry's most important advances are linked to the invention of new methods for separating various substances.

Chemistry today is to a large extent concentrated upon the study of natural products, which are obtained from animals, plants, or even bacteria and other microorganisms. A starting material of this type contains a great number of widely varied substances, some simple, others more complicated. The first thing the chemist must do is to isolate the substances he is interested in from the material and prepare them in a pure state. The next step is, if possible, to identify these substances and find out what they consist of and how they are built up from simple constituents.

The first problem, the isolation, can indeed be difficult, as it is often a matter of preparing in a pure state substances which constitute only an extremely small fraction of the starting material and which have the disagreeable tendency of, so to speak, disappearing between one's fingers when one tries to get hold of them. It is here that Martin and Synge's method has enjoyed great success, especially in what is perhaps its most important form, and is called filter-paper chromatography.

The images of the Nobel Prize medals are registered trademarks of the Nobel Foundation (© The Nobel Foundation). They are used here, with permission, for educational purposes only.

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