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What is life?


Two papers: the connection between fast and slow reactions
Manfred Eigen Scientist
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There was a few papers of mine got into the... got a high ranking in the science citation index, and they have a special journal that if a paper ranks very high in that they ask you to write a little sketch on how you came about to write this paper and how you did with it. And they asked me... they had two papers. One was in 1971 Naturwissenschaften paper, that's about life, origin of life. The name of the paper was Self-organisation of matter and the evolution of biological macromolecules, and the other was a paper written a few years earlier. It say, Proton transfer, acid base catalysis and enzymic hydrolysis. So a paper on the fast reaction and here on the slow reaction of evolution. They say, 'What is the connection between the two areas?' And I said, 'Yes, there's a very close connection'. We studied reactions. We studied simple reactions so we know what is possible, so we know that... not only what is possible. We also know what is not possible. In other words, how fast can a reaction be? And then we say, 'Is there anything in the living material which is... cannot be explained...which is mystical?' And the answer was, 'No'. The reactions go as well as they could go but they never do more than that. They are optimised, but we can understand where the optimal limits are and they reached it, but not more.

Nobel Prize winning German biophysical chemist, Manfred Eigen (1927-2019), was best known for his work on fast chemical reactions and his development of ways to accurately measure these reactions down to the nearest billionth of a second. He published over 100 papers with topics ranging from hydrogen bridges of nucleic acids to the storage of information in the central nervous system.

Listeners: Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitch

Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch is the eldest daughter of the Austrian physicist Klaus Osatitsch, an internationally renowned expert in gas dynamics, and his wife Hedwig Oswatitsch-Klabinus. She was born in the German university town of Göttingen where her father worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Aerodynamics under Ludwig Prandtl. After World War II she was educated in Stockholm, Sweden, where her father was then a research scientist and lecturer at the Royal Institute of Technology.

In 1961 Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch enrolled in Chemistry at the Technical University of Vienna where she received her PhD in 1969 with a dissertation on "Fast complex reactions of alkali ions with biological membrane carriers". The experimental work for her thesis was carried out at the Max Planck Institute for Physical Chemistry in Göttingen under Manfred Eigen.

From 1971 to the present Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch has been working as a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen in the Department of Chemical Kinetics which is headed by Manfred Eigen. Her interest was first focused on an application of relaxation techniques to the study of fast biological reactions. Thereafter, she engaged in theoretical studies on molecular evolution and developed game models for representing the underlying chemical proceses. Together with Manfred Eigen she wrote the widely noted book, "Laws of the Game" (Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 1981 and Princeton University Press, 1993). Her more recent studies were concerned with comparative sequence analysis of nucleic acids in order to find out the age of the genetic code and the time course of the early evolution of life. For the last decade she has been successfully establishing industrial applications in the field of evolutionary biotechnology.

Tags: Naturwissenschaften, Self-organisation of matter and the evolution of biological macromolecules, Proton transfer, acid base catalysis and enzymic hydrolysis, fast reactions, slow reaction, optimal limits

Duration: 1 minute, 54 seconds

Date story recorded: July 1997

Date story went live: 29 September 2010