Rebecca Mertens of Bielefeld University, located in northwest Germany, is the latest visitor to complete a term as Resident Scholar in the Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections and Archives Research Center. A Ph.D. candidate in the philosophy and history of science, Mertens spent a month stateside, visiting both the OSU Libraries as well as the Caltech Archives.
During her stay she braved both a major (and unusual) snow event in Corvallis as well as torrential rains in southern California. Despite these obstacles, Mertens enjoyed a fruitful visit to the west coast as she pursued her research on Linus Pauling’s contributions to the lock-and-key model of biological specificity and the influence that this model imparted upon the sweep of modern biochemistry.
An outgrowth of his research on antibodies and antigens, Linus Pauling’s work on biological specificity comprised a major contribution to contemporary thinking on biochemical topics. Pauling biographer Thomas Hager gives us this primer on what is meant by by the term, “biological specificity.”
Pauling demonstrated that the precise binding of antigen to antibody was accomplished not by typical chemical means – that is, through covalent or ionic bonds — but solely through shape. Antibodies recognized and bound to antigens because one fit the other, as a glove fits a hand. Their shapes were complementary. When the fit was tight, the surfaces of antibody and antigen came into very close contact, making possible the formation of many weak links that operated at close quarters and were considered relatively unimportant in traditional chemistry — van der Waals’ forces, hydrogen bonds, and so forth. To work, the fit had to be incredibly precise. Even a single atom out of place could significantly affect the binding.
In her Resident Scholar presentation, Mertens described the thrust of her research, which focuses on how one should interpret the contributions that Pauling made in this particular arena.
In the course of his research on antibodies, Linus Pauling postulated that the complementary structure of two molecules or two parts of a molecule determined the specificity of reactions in the living organism. However, the idea that molecular complementarity and biological specificity are deeply connected was already mentioned by Emil Fischer at the end of the 19th century. Thus, Pauling’s novel contribution was not the initial articulation of the model, but rather his emphasis on the importance of molecular complementarity for all biological phenomena.
Through examination of the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers, as well as the institutional records held at Caltech, Mertens is pursuing the idea that “Pauling’s interdisciplinary reputation, his public presence and his engagement in the organization of scientific institutions led to the popularity of the lock-and-key model and to its standardization in the second half of the twentieth century.” These forces of Pauling’s status and personality in turn made an impact on questions of “financial support, networking and science popularization within the administration of scientific projects.”
Beyond uncovering and detailing the history of Pauling’s role in the development of the lock-and-key model, Mertens is also using her research to “suggest an approach to the study of analogical models that considers social and political factors on successful model usage…[and] the formation and consolidation of model-based research programs.” Mertens returned to Germany with a large volume of content to sift through and absorb as she continues to develop her thinking on these issues.
Now entering its seventh year, the Resident Scholar Program at OSU Libraries provides research stipends of up to $2,500 to support work conducted in the Special Collections and Archives Research Center. Applications for the 2014 class of scholars are being accepted now – the deadline for entry is April 30, 2014. For more details, please see the program homepage.