John Kendrew (1964) - Recent Studies of the Structure of Proteins

John Kendrew (1964)

Recent Studies of the Structure of Proteins

John Kendrew (1964)

Recent Studies of the Structure of Proteins

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John Kendrew was the first scientist who succeeded in elucidating the structure of a protein in atomic resolution. By means of X-ray crystallography he analyzed the structure of myoglobin, the molecule that stores and releases oxygen in the muscle. It contains about 2600 atoms. When he started his work, the largest molecules that had been solved by X-ray crystallography contained but a few dozen atoms. Kendrew had to examine 110 crystals and measure the intensities of about 250,000 X-ray reflections.

In 1946, Kendrew had joined the group of Max Perutz at the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge. Perutz, the pioneer of protein crystallography, had set out to solve the structure of hemoglobin, the oxygen carrier of the blood, in 1937. Hemoglobin is four times as large as myoglobin, however, and Kendrew reached the finish line one year earlier than Perutz, in 1958. From the beginning, the two scientists worked together very well, as Max Perutz pointed out in a letter to his parents-in-law: „He knew no X-ray crystallography when he came last January, learnt the elements of the subject in two weeks, set to work on his problem which required great experimental skill, and solved it in a few months’ concentrated work. Besides, he is a charming fellow, and it is a pleasure to talk to him; so I consider myself very lucky to have him with me.“[1]

Lindau also could count itself lucky to welcome Kendrew already two years after he had shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Perutz. In a very clear and concise way Kendrew presented a state-of-the-art overview on structural biology as few others would have been able to give it at this time. He introduced the recent findings on myoglobin and hemoglobin, of course, but he mainly directed the attention of his audience to the relationship between the structure and the function of proteins, and intensively dealt with questions like: How does a protein fold up? How is its specific structure determined? Why are myoglobin and hemoglobin quite similar in their structure while only a few amino acids in their sequence correspond? How does hemoglobin change its conformation when „breathing“?

„Understanding the structure has not given us the answer to all the questions we would like to understand“, Kendrew concluded. „This field of protein structure is by no means a closed one. In fact, we are really just at the beginning.“ As a researcher, a teacher and a science manager he continued to bring this new field to fruition. Together with Perutz and others, he founded the European Molecular Biology Organization, and from 1974 to 1982 he served as the first director of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg.

Joachim Pietzsch

[1] Georgina Ferry: Max Perutz and the secret of life, London 2007, p. 126

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