An Era of Discovery in Protein Structure

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling, Oxford, 1948.

[The Paulings in England: Part 4 of 5]

Though metals were consuming a good portion of his time during his fellowship at Oxford, Linus Pauling’s other projects never strayed far from his thoughts.  High on the list were the mysteries of proteins, whose structures and functions were slowly starting to be unraveled.

Pauling’s interest in proteins was spurred in the mid-1930s when the Rockefeller Foundation began to look most favorably upon the chemistry of life when deciding where their grant money would go. Early on, Pauling set out to tackle hemoglobin and though his affair with the molecule lasted for the remainder of life, Pauling certainly didn’t limit himself to the study of just one protein.

At a time when most were looking at proteins from the top down, trying to sort out the complicated data produced by an x-ray diffraction photograph of an entire protein, Pauling was working from the bottom up, in the process determining the structures of individual amino acids – the building blocks of proteins.

A specific protein that kept coming back into view over the years was keratin. In the 1930s, the English scientist William Astbury had studied the structure of wool, which along with hair, horn, and fingernail is made up primarily of this enigmatic protein, keratin. Astbury proposed that the structure was akin to a flat, kinked ribbon, but Pauling disagreed. “I knew that what Astbury had said wasn’t right,” Pauling recalled, “because our studies of simple molecules had given us enough knowledge about bond lengths and bond angles and hydrogen-bond formation to show that what he said wasn’t right. But I didn’t know what was right.” Pauling attempted to construct a model at the time, but could not match his structure to the measurements dictated by Astbury’s blurry x-ray diffraction images. Pauling wrote the project off as a failure and continued pursuing other interests.

In 1945 Pauling found himself seated next to Harvard medical Professor William B. Castle on a railroad journey from Denver to Chicago. Castle was a physician working on the nature of sickle cell anemia and the conversation that he shared with Pauling planted a seed in Pauling’s mind about the cause of this debilitating disease.

In the bodies of those suffering from sickle cell anemia, red blood cells assume a sickled shape when they are in the deoxygenated venous system but retain their normal flattened disk shape in the oxygen-rich arterial system. Noting this, Pauling suggested that perhaps the source of the problem could be a defect in the oxygen-carrying protein itself: hemoglobin.

Amidst his travels in Europe, Pauling continued to act on this idea as maestro from afar, directing the scientists in his Caltech laboratory to continue searching for differences in the hemoglobin of normal and sickled cells. In the meantime, he sought out and communicated new ideas gleaned from meetings such as the Barcroft Memorial Conference on Hemoglobin, held at Cambridge in June 1948. Pauling’s research team, in particular Harvey Itano and S. Jonathan Singer, were able to show experimentally that his hunch had been right, and less than a year after his return to Pasadena a paper was published that established sickle cell anemia as the first illness to be revealed as a truly molecular disease.

Linus and Peter Pauling at the model Bourton-on-the-water, England. 1948.

While in England, Pauling had occasion to interact closely with a number of scientific greats.  Among these were his close friend Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, who is credited as a pioneer in the development of protein crystallography and was the winner of the 1964 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.  Likewise, Pauling conversed with Max Perutz, a protege of Sir William Lawrence Bragg‘s at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, who would go on to discover the structure of hemoglobin and receive the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1962.  While fruitful in many respects, these interactions served to increase Pauling’s feelings of urgency as concerned the race to determine the structure of proteins.

Bragg shared the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics with his father for their early development of X-ray crystallography, and though there existed a long-standing scientific rivalry between Pauling’s and Bragg’s laboratories, it wasn’t until Pauling saw, with his own eyes, the work that was being done that he admitted he was “beginning to feel a bit uncomfortable about the English competition.” As he wrote to his colleague Edward Hughes back at Caltech

It has been a good experience for me to look over the x-ray laboratory at Cambridge. They have about five times as great an outfit as ours, that is, with facilities for taking nearly 30 x-ray pictures at the same time. I think that we should expand our x-ray lab without delay.

This realization prompted Pauling to get researchers in his lab started on work with insulin – an arduous and complicated process that required sample purification and crystallization prior to x-ray investigation. In relaying research findings from English scientists working on insulin to his partners back in Pasadena, Pauling intimated that

It is clear that there is already considerable progress made on the job of a complete structure determination of insulin. However, there is still a very great deal of work that remains to be done, and I do not think that it is assured that the British school will finish the job. I believe that this is the problem that we should begin to work on, with as much vigor as possible, under our insulin project.

Little did Pauling know that, while laying in bed, using little more than a piece of paper, a pen and a slide rule, he would soon make a major breakthrough in protein chemistry on his own.

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