The Opposing Thumb

An opinionated digit leafs through the biological literature
Media Roundup


A leading biochemist in the field of energy metabolism once proposed to a member of the audience to prove the necessity of oxygen by wrapping a plastic bag around his head (“his” being the audience member’s). I think we all have an intuitive notion of how that experiment would play out. But what is the oxygen actually for? What do our cells do with it? It may seem like a silly question, but much of life makes do without it, obtaining it’s energy by anaerobic means. In fact, many cells in our own tissues, from muscle to white blood cells often forgo aerobic (oxygen dependent) metabolism. The biochemistry of anaerobic energy metabolism was solved quite early in the history of Biology- perhaps the fact that, under the guise of fermentation, this is the process that gives us wine and beer (and sure, bread) helped great minds focus.

The solution to the problem of cellular breathing was, according to Leslie Orgel, “the single most counterintuitive idea in Biology” since Darwin. Because it violated the simple chemical arithmetic that fermentation fit so well, the correct solution was deemed not just to be incorrect, but really not to be research-worthy. Science being science, eventually wrongs were righted, and Peter Mitchell was awarded, alone, the 1978 Nobel Chemistry Prize for what is technically known as the “chemiosmotic theory”. Nick Lane gives us a great account of what this actually means (i.e. “how cells breathe”). In this short excerpt you can see the story has great elements, an eccentric genius in his isolated manor, warring factions, and triumph:

“Pioneered by the eccentric British biochemist Peter Mitchell, largely in his own research laboratories in a renovated country house in rural Cornwall, the concept was controversial for more than twenty years. This period of controversy was known as the “ox-phos wars” (after “oxidative phosphorylation,” the mechanism of ATP synthesis inrespiration). The wars drew to an end only after Mitchell received the Nobel Prize in 1978.”

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