The Alpha Helix

Space-filling model of the alpha helix.

[The Paulings in England: Part 5 of 5]

It has been said that sometimes blessings come in disguise, and so it may be that we have the damp English spring to thank for the elucidation of the alpha-helix structure of alpha-keratin – a fundamental and ubiquitous secondary structure pattern found in many proteins.

Linus Pauling was plagued by sinusitis for much of his time in England, and for three days in March 1948 it had become severe enough to put him in bed (as he was fond of saying over the years, this was before his vitamin C days). After a day spent devouring mystery novels, Pauling asked Ava Helen if she would bring him some paper and his slide rule, at which point he started trying to figure out how polypeptide chains might fold up into a satisfactory protein structure.

Pauling’s canvas was just an ordinary 8 1/2 by 11 inch sheet of paper. His first step was to draw the correct bond angles and distances onto the sheet, as determined from previous x-ray crystallographic work on polypeptides. Next he folded the sheet along parallel lines into a sort of squared-off tube. Doing so allowed him to add in representations of hydrogen bonds, which the impromptu model suggested would form between amino acid residues and, as a result, hold the turns of the polypeptide together.

The model made sense and pretty quickly it was clear that Pauling had discovered something important.  As he later wrote, his folded creation “turned out to be the structure of hair and horn and fingernail, and also present in myoglobin and hemoglobin and other globular proteins, a structure called the alpha-helix .”

Reconstruction of the alpha-helix paper model. Drawn and folded by Linus Pauling, 1982.

Pauling kept this idea to himself until his return to the United States because something didn’t match up quite right with the current laboratory data. Specifically, the turns of Pauling’s helix didn’t mirror the 5.1 angstrom repeat found in all of William T. Astbury‘s x-ray patterns. Pauling’s structure came close, but made a turn every 5.4 angstroms, or every 3.7 amino acid residues.

After his return home, with the assistance of colleagues Robert Corey and Herman Branson, Pauling continued refining his alpha helix structure and developing others, including the beta sheet. Simultaneously, the Caltech group’s chief British rivals at the Cavendish Laboratory published a paper titled “Polypeptide Chain Configurations in Crystalline Proteins.” The paper promised more than it delivered though, and while it listed many possible structures, Pauling found none of them to be likely. The competition was still on.

Pauling was finally convinced to publish when he received word that a British chemical firm called Courtaulds had created a synthetic polypeptide chain that showed no sign of Astbury’s 5.1 angstrom reflection in x-ray diffraction images. This was enough evidence for Pauling to decide that the 5.1 angstrom repeat was, perhaps, not a vital component of all polypeptide chains.  And so it was that in April 1951 Pauling, Corey and Branson published “The structure of proteins: Two hydrogen-bonded helical configurations of the polypeptide chain,” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

After devouring the Pauling group’s results shortly after their publication, Max Perutz headed to the Cavendish lab at Cambridge to check the data himself. Having confirmed the structure in images of horsehair, porcupine quill, synthetic polypeptides, hemoglobin and, for good measure, some old protein films that had been tucked away, Perutz wrote to Pauling, “The fulfillment of this prediction and, finally, the discovery of this reflection in hemoglobin has been the most thrilling discovery of my life.” He then published an analysis of his own data, concluding, “The spacing at which this reflexion appears excludes all models except the 3.7 residue helix of Pauling, Corey and Branson, with which it is in complete accord.”

Video Link: Pauling Recounts His Discovery of the Alpha Helix


It wasn’t until a year later that the mystery of Astbury’s 5.1 angstrom reflection was finally solved. In 1952, on a visit to the Cavendish, Pauling met Francis Crick, the then-graduate student who would go on to play a huge part in the discovery of the structure of DNA. The two maintained similar interests and during a taxi ride around Cambridge found themselves discussing the matter of the alpha helix. “Have you thought about the possibility,” Crick asked Pauling, “that alpha helixes are coiled around one another?” Whether Pauling had or had not considered this possibility remains a point of contention, but Pauling remembered replying that he had, because he had been considering a number of higher-level schemes for his helixes, including some which wound around each other.

Regardless, Pauling returned to Caltech and both he and Crick set to work on the problem. With help from Corey, Pauling discovered a means by which the alpha helixes could wrap around each other in a coiled-coil to produce the problematic 5.1 angstrom found in Astbury’s pictures of natural keratin.  Crick, in the meantime, was conducting a very similar study.  Pauling and Crick, independent of one another, ultimately submitted the solution to this puzzle for publication within days of each other, and at first there was a bit of grumbling as to whom the credit should be awarded. Though Crick’s note was published first, the Cavendish camp eventually conceded that Pauling’s paper included considerably more detail of consequence, and it was finally settled that both scientists had independently come to the same general conclusion.


Pauling receiving his honorary degree from the University of Paris, 1948.

After Pauling’s two fruitful terms as Eastman Professor at Oxford were up in July, the family split their remaining time between travels in Amsterdam, Switzerland and Paris. Pauling rounded off the trip by receiving yet another honorary degree from the University of Paris, and on August 25, 1948, the Paulings set sail once more on the Queen Mary.

His eight months in Europe had been productive and enlightening, but Pauling was ready to return to Pasadena where he could share the myriad ideas he had generated and gathered during his time away from Caltech. As we have seen, he was especially eager to get back to work on proteins, writing shortly before his departure that “I have continued to work on my theory of metals, and have been doing nothing about proteins. However, I am looking forward to being back home, and to thinking about that subject again.”

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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.