Pauling’s Methodology: Electrophoresis

Diagram of a Tiselius electrophoresis apparatus.

Diagram of a Tiselius electrophoresis apparatus.

[Electrophoresis image extracted from the published version of Arne Tiselius’ Nobel lecture, December 13, 1948.  A digitized version of this lecture is available here courtesy of the Nobel Museum.]

The item of $7,500 for apparatus, supplies, animals would permit us to use the large number of animals required for some of our projected researches, and should permit also the construction of a Tiselius apparatus for the electrophoretic separation of antibody fractions by the suggested method of combination with charged haptens, and for other investigations.
– Linus Pauling, budget request letter to Warren Weaver. January 2, 1941.

Though, by the late 1930s, X-ray crystallography had become important to Linus Pauling’s research on the structure of complex organic proteins, the newly developed technique of electrophoresis eventually became the technology that defined his work on sickle cell anemia.  Indeed, Pauling was one of the first in a generation of scientists to effectively use the technique of electrophoresis to explain a biological phenomenon.

Lying at the core of Pauling’s interest in sickle cell disease was this question: What really made normal hemoglobin and the hemoglobin from someone suffering from sickle cell anemia different? Though Pauling and his fellow researchers theorized that the answer lay in differences between the structures of the hemoglobin molecules themselves, and also figured that magnetic properties somehow played a role, they had yet to find or develop a method suitable for testing their ideas.

As it turned out, Pauling and his colleagues had to do both: they found and they developed.

The Pauling group seized upon the new technique of electrophoresis but manipulated it considerably to fit their own research agenda. Pauling attributed the idea of using electrophoresis in the first place to one of his graduate students, Harvey Itano. Later Pauling and Itano sought advice, assistance and collaboration with others who were also using the technique, including Karl Landsteiner and Arne Tiselius, both accomplished researchers and close colleagues of Pauling’s. After the construction at Caltech of an electrophoretic machine, Stanley Swingle, a general chemistry instructor at the Institute, developed a number of mechanical improvements while Harvey Itano and Seymour Jonathon Singer conducted research using the apparatus.

After much trial and error, electrophoresis emerged as one of the more important experimental methods used to determine the difference in electrical charge between normal hemoglobin and sickle cell hemoglobin.

Listen:  Pauling discusses the evolution of electrophoresis work at Caltech

The results of Pauling’s electrophoretic experiments, reported in his group’s groundbreaking 1949 paper, “Sickle Cell Anemia, a Molecular Disease,” promoted the argument that sickle cell anemia was not only a pathology resultant of differential protein folding patterns, but that it was also inherited in a simple Mendelian pattern. In other words, sickle cell anemia was both ‘molecular’ and ‘genetic,’ and by seeing it as such, Pauling suggested certain therapies that directly addressed both the structural and the genetic components of the disease.

Even as late as the 1960s Pauling was still looking for ways to use electrophoresis in his research. He mentions, in a handwritten note, that of the ‘likely developments’ in biology, control of molecular and genetic diseases could possibly be obtained through the “electrophoresis of sperm.”

(Though the idea may sound strange today, Pauling was an advocate for the controversial notion of positive eugenics — that is the planned and controlled production of healthy offspring, primarily through genetic counseling. We’ll talk more about this component of Pauling’s thinking in a later post.)

In more ways than one, electrophoresis was a new technology that required the coordinated effort of a number of trained individuals. Though it took several years to fine-tune both the method and the instruments, the results were well worth the wait.

To learn more about Linus Pauling’s use of electrophoresis, please visit the website It’s in the Blood!  A Documentary History of Linus Pauling, Hemoglobin and Sickle Cell Anemia.

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