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The benefits of having been a doctor: Bence Jones protein


The ghost of Landsteiner
Gerald Edelman Scientist
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I had to confront the issue of heterogeneity. This gamma globulin was really rather weird. When you subjected it to another kind of separation on the basis of its net electric charge, called electrophoresis –another Swedish invention of Arne Tiselius, a person who later became my friend – that molecule sort of developed a smear instead of being a nice sharp peak like albumin in the serum; this thing out of the serum was a smeary peak, and if you cut the peak and put it in you got another peak. And so it looked like it was an enormously heterogeneous molecule, at least in terms of its net electrical charge. Well, that was another problem because you can't... if something is a mixture of a whole bunch of things, you can't do a chemical analysis. The third thing was the specificity, and here I have to come back to the atmosphere of the Rockefeller and how important that was.

Well, I didn't have a mentor; I had a ghost. The ghost was Landsteiner. Landsteiner was perhaps the greatest scientist who ever inhabited the halls of the Rockefeller except perhaps Avery – Oswald Avery who discovered the DNA as the genetic material. And I was fully aware of the ghost of Landsteiner because Landsteiner was the man who allied immunology with organic chemistry; who showed that you could take some organic chemical... little molecule called the hapten by him, and hook it up and stick it into an animal and the animal would make molecules – antibodies – that recognized that hapten and distinguished it in the most remarkable way. An example of the distinction is this, think of a benzene ring, this six-fold structure and put a nitro group in one position and another on another. If you put three nitro groups in symmetrically on that ring it becomes something called picryl – that yellow stuff that's sort of antibacterial – and you could distinguish between dinitrophenyl and trinitrophenyl, just by one nitro group using Landsteiner's methods, which is amazing specificity. And, in fact, what it meant is you could recognize molecules that never existed in the history of the earth before.

US biologist Gerald Edelman (1929-2014) successfully constructed a precise model of an antibody, a protein used by the body to neutralise harmful bacteria or viruses and it was this work that won him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972 jointly with Rodney R Porter. He then turned his attention to neuroscience, focusing on neural Darwinism, an influential theory of brain function.

Listeners: Ralph J. Greenspan

Dr. Greenspan has worked on the genetic and neurobiological basis of behavior in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) almost since the inception of the field, studying with one of its founders, Jeffery Hall, at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where he received his Ph.D. in biology in 1979. He subsequently taught and conducted research at Princeton University and New York University where he ran the W.M. Keck Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology, relocating to San Diego in 1997 to become a Senior Fellow in Experimental Neurobiology at The Neurosciences Institute. Dr. Greenspan’s research accomplishments include studies of physiological and behavioral consequences of mutations in a neurotransmitter system affecting one of the brain's principal chemical signals, studies making highly localized genetic alterations in the nervous system to alter behavior, molecular identification of genes causing naturally occurring variation in behavior, and the demonstration that the fly has sleep-like and attention-like behavior similar to that of mammals. Dr. Greenspan has been awarded fellowships from the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation, the Searle Scholars Program, the McKnight Foundation, the Sloan Foundation and the Klingenstein Foundation. In addition to authoring research papers in journals such as "Science", "Nature", "Cell", "Neuron", and "Current Biology", he is also author of an article on the subject of genes and behavior for "Scientific American" and several books, including "Genetic Neurobiology" with Jeffrey Hall and William Harris, "Flexibility and Constraint in Behavioral Systems" with C.P. Kyriacou, and "Fly Pushing: The Theory and Practice of Drosophila Genetics", which has become a standard work in all fruit fly laboratories.

Tags: Rockefeller Institute, Arne Tiselius, Karl Landsteiner, Oswald Avery

Duration: 2 minutes, 12 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008