Pauling and Perutz in the Golden Age of Protein Research

Max Perutz, 1987. Image Credit: Graham Wood.

Max Perutz, 1987. Image Credit: Graham Wood.

[Part 3 of our series celebrating the Perutz centenary.]

In 1939 Max Perutz’s girlfriend gave him a book token for Christmas. Working on finishing his dissertation on the structure of hemoglobin, Perutz used that token to purchase Linus Pauling’s recently published text, The Nature of the Chemical Bond.

In the obituary of Pauling that he wrote some fifty-five years later, Perutz described how the “book transformed the chemical flatland of my earlier textbooks into a world of three-dimensional structures” and “fortified my belief, already inspired by J. D. Bernal, that knowledge of three-dimensional structure is all-important and that the functions of living cells will never be understood without knowing the structures of the large molecules composing them.”  The purchase of Pauling’s book marked the beginning of a long, fruitful and sometimes contentious correspondence between the two men, working on separate continents but united by similar interests.


Not until 1946 did Perutz first write to Pauling, asking for assistance as he labored through his research on the structure of hemoglobin. The Cavendish Laboratory, where Perutz was located, did not have the latest equipment that was available to Pauling at Caltech. In particular, Perutz needed a Hollerith punch-card machine to carry out calculations of the three-dimensional Patterson-Fourier synthesis. Perutz knew that Pauling’s lab was already conducting calculations of this sort and that the work Perutz was doing “would have to be done sooner or later, if the molecular structure of the proteins is to be worked out.”

As such, Perutz hoped that someone in Pauling’s lab might do the calculations for him. Pauling was not moved enough by Perutz’s request to offer the labor of his own team, replying that enlisting someone do such work in a “routine way” could lead to confusion. Pauling did offer that Perutz come to Pasadena, or send a surrogate to do the work, if he could find the money. Perutz was unable to support such an undertaking and so ended that conversation.

Linus Pauling and Lord Alexander R. Todd. Cambridge, England. 1948.

Two years later, in 1948, Pauling was in England, enjoying a stint as George Eastman Professor at Oxford. It was during this time that he and Perutz met for the first time in person. Perutz described his first experiences of Pauling’s lectures, in which

he would reel off the top of his head atomic radii, interatomic distances and bond energies with the gusto of an organist playing a Bach fugue; afterwards he would look around for applause, as I had seen Bertrand Russell do after quoting one of his eloquent metaphors.

The two also found time to talk together about their own particular research projects.

Pauling’s work at Oxford touched directly on Perutz’s own program, in what would become a oft-noted story in twentieth century history of science. As Pauling lay in bed with a cold, he did not stop working, choosing to spend his time making planar peptide models with paper chains. From his paper folding exercises, Pauling, according to Perutz’s obituary, “found a satisfactory structure by folding them into a helix with 3.6 residues per turn.” (A story that Pauling relayed many times himself.) The structure would come to be known as the alpha helix.

After Pauling recovered from his illness, Perutz showed him his own model of a polypeptide chain which was part of his larger hemoglobin model and was similar to fibers described by William Astbury. To Perutz’s “disappointment, Pauling made no comment,” and gave no hint as to his own breakthrough, which he announced the next year in a “dramatic lecture.”  That later unveiling of the alpha helix gave rise to a famous Perutz anecdote, which later informed the title of a book of essays that Perutz published.

When I saw the alpha-helix and saw what a beautiful, elegant structure it was, I was thunderstruck and was furious with myself for not having built this, but on the other hand, I wondered, was it really right?

So I cycled home for lunch and was so preoccupied with the turmoil in my mind that I didn’t respond to anything. Then I had an idea, so I cycled back to the lab. I realized that I had a horse hair in a drawer. I set it up on the X-ray camera and gave it a two hour exposure, then took the film to the dark room with my heart in my mouth, wondering what it showed, and when I developed it, there was the 1.5 angstrom reflection which I had predicted and which excluded all structures other than the alpha-helix.

So on Monday morning I stormed into my professor’s office, into [William Lawrence] Bragg’s office and showed him this, and Bragg said, ‘Whatever made you think of that?’ And I said, ‘Because I was so furious with myself for having missed that beautiful structure.’ To which Bragg replied coldly, ‘I wish I had made you angry earlier.’

 


Once Pauling returned to Pasadena, he and Perutz fell into a minor quarrel. In December 1950, Perutz had heard that Pauling had been “annoyed” by Perutz and John Murdoch Mitchison’s paper, “State of Hæmoglobin in Sickle-Cell Anæmia,” which had been published in Nature that October. Pauling was upset that Perutz and Mitchison had suggested that crystallization caused cells to sickle without properly citing his own seminal work on the subject.

In a December letter, Perutz said he was “very disappointed” that Pauling was upset with the publication, not only because there was a reference to Pauling, et al. in its introductory paragraph, but “particularly because all the new experimental evidence we report seemed to fit in so beautifully with the basic ideas set out in” Pauling’s co-authored Science article, “Sickle Cell Anemia, a Molecular Disease,” published in November 1949. Perutz explained his position in more detail, noting,

There is perhaps a slight difference between our points of view. Whereas you regard the sickling as being due to an aggregation and partial alignment of hæmoglobin molecules by a lock and key mechanism, an interlocking of specific groups in neighbouring molecules, we regard the cause of the sickling as being simply a crystallization, due to abnormally low solubility of the reduced hæmoglobin. No specific interaction of the kind you mention need be involved in the second process, though it obviously may be…I am sorry that this misunderstanding between us should have arisen, particularly as I have spent much effort trying to convert unbelievers to your scheme.

Pauling waited until the following February to respond and explained his feeling that readers of Perutz’s article might conclude that Perutz was making an original proposal. Having made this statement, Pauling, in his own way, moved beyond the quarrel by telling Perutz about his more recent work showing that “hemoglobin is not crystallized in the sickle cells, but is only converted to the nematic [or liquid crystal] state.” The ice broken, Perutz quickly responded by inviting Pauling to take part in informal discussions about protein structure at the Cavendish Laboratory before an annual conference, to be held in Stockholm. Pauling, however, could not attend.

The next year, Pauling attempted to visit England, this time to speak at a conference about the alpha helix, but was delayed due to his passport renewal being denied on account of his political activities. Perutz wrote that Pauling’s “absence had a sadly damping effect on our meeting at the Royal Society, and it made the discussion rather one sided as there was no none to answer the various objections to the α-helix raised by the Astburites and Courtlauld people” since Pauling’s supporters were unprepared to defend Pauling’s position without him. Perutz was also keen to show Pauling his own progress, an eagerness that Pauling reciprocated. By July Pauling had cleared up his passport problems and was able to spend time in person discussing his and Perutz’s work.


By 1953 Perutz and Pauling were quarrelling again over proper citation, though this time it was Perutz suggesting that Pauling had not given Francis Crick enough credit regarding the coiling of alpha helixes. Pauling explained to Perutz that, while he was at Cambridge the previous summer, he had talked with Crick and John Kendrew at length. During that conversation, according to Pauling,

There was only brief discussion of α keratin at this time, and, if my memory is correct, only a few sentences were said about the coiled coil, as Crick calls it. We discussed the fact that the 5.15-Å meridional reflection offers some difficulties of explanations, and that also there seemed to be a discrepancy in the density of α keratin. The discussion was very brief. Then Mr. Crick asked me if I had ever thought of the possibility that the α helixes were twisted about one another. I answered that I had. So far as I can remember, nothing more was said on this point.

Pauling went on to emphasize that “the idea was not a new one to me then” and that his own description of it in Nature was different from Crick’s understanding. Perutz ceded this point, adding that Pauling’s differences with Crick “stimulated Crick to clarify his own” ideas on the coiling of alpha helixes. More generally, Perutz found that the competition that arose between the two labs as they worked on similar problems helped to push each forward, thus leading to positive advances.

The famous group photo of the Pasadena Conference on the Structure of Proteins, September 1953. Pauling stands front row, third from left. Perutz stands two rows behind Pauling. [Image credit: The Archives, California Institute of Technology]

That September, Perutz made his first visit to California in order to deliver a paper at the Pasadena Conference on the Structure of Proteins, at which were gathered all of the world’s major figures in the field, including Jim Watson and Francis Crick, newly famous for their double helical structure of DNA. Perutz told his wife, Gisela, that his paper was “well received.” Additionally, with all of the different perspectives presented, there was “an atmosphere of soberness, and a realization that no-one’s solution of the protein problem was complete, and every approach was still fraught with complications.” Perutz was also quite taken with the Paulings’ home and their hospitality, pointing out that Ava Helen had invited him “after one of the meetings for a swim in their garden.”

Correspondence between Perutz and Pauling dipped a bit after the conference, though Pauling did take a moment to congratulate Perutz on being elected to the Royal Society the following Spring. While the exchange was brief, it reflected the long relationship built up between the two over the preceding years and, in particular, a confluence of work that had boosted the esteem of both scientists.

Perutz had begun looking at the structure of wool proteins back in 1951, thinking that there might be similarities to hemoglobin. He became excited after finding Pauling’s work on alpha helixes in fibers, thinking that the structure might be present in wool as well. His initial studies resulted in disappointment, but after adjusting the angle at which he was taking his x-rays by 30 degrees, he compiled new data that confirmed Pauling’s alpha helix structure. After applying it to his own work on hemoglobin, Perutz told Pauling “the discovery of this reflexion in haemoglobin has been the most thrilling discovery of my life…there is no doubt that it is a universal feature at least of all fibers of the α type. Whether all crystalline proteins show it remains to be seen.” Not suprisingly, Pauling was also “very pleased” with this discovery.

This research opened the door for Perutz to be considered by the Royal Society. But it was his development of a technique for determining a three-dimensional view of structures derived from x-ray crystallography that assured his election. He did this be attaching mercury atoms to hemoglobin, which allowed him to figure out where the crest and trough of a given x-ray was in relation to the structure that appeared on the photos. Perutz later said that after he finished the work and published it in Nature at the end of 1959, he went skiing in the Alps, and by the time he returned he was famous, assuring his fellowship in the Royal Society.

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