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A life devoted to amino acid research

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William H. Stein (Callie Jones)Saturday 25 June 2011 is the centenary of the birth of US chemist William H. Stein, who shared the 1972 Nobel chemistry prize for his research on ribonuclease. This award followed almost 40 years spent in research on proteins and amino acids.

Like many who have benefited from career advice, William Stein chose this path as a result of someone else’s suggestion. Graduating in chemistry from Harvard University in 1929, he stayed on to continue his studies for a further year during which time his supervisor suggested that he might enjoy the developing subject of biochemistry more than organic chemistry per se. Stein’s PhD thesis, which he completed in 1937, was on the amino acid composition of elastin. Thus began a lifelong interest in protein chemistry.

That Stein studied chemistry was due largely to the influence of his parents. His father was a New York businessman who took great interest in the affairs of his community, particularly those related to health, and he retired early to devote his time to local health organisations and hospitals. Stein’s mother, too, devoted herself to the community, working towards improving the lives of children in New York. They were keen that their son should also work towards the betterment of society and thought that the best way for him to achieve this was to study medicine or a science.

Moving forward again to 1937, Stein had prepared elastin with the help of two precipitants developed by medical researcher Max Bergmann. It was a logical progression for Stein to join the Bergmann group, where he applied himself to analysing the structure of amino acids and proteins. Early successes included leucine, glycine and egg albumin. His analysis of ?-lactoglobulin and bovine serum albumin followed in 1949.

Advances in chromatographic methodology then enabled Stein to begin studying ribonuclease. An enzyme was an appealing subject for study because knowledge of its structure could provide a baseline for determining specific residues involved in enzyme-substrate reactions. His lectures to students and on his travels apparently conveyed an exciting picture of the horizons that new methods were opening in the chemical structure of proteins at that time.

In 1968, he became editor of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, a publication receiving more than 3,000 manuscripts each year. Then 18 months later, at an international symposium on proteolytic enzymes in Copenhagen, Stein developed a high fever that prevented him from giving his paper. Sadly, on arrival back in the US, he was diagnosed as having a severe case of Guillain-Barré syndrome and he was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Though he had to relinquish his editorship of the journal, he had the enormous pleasure of seeing research interest in ribonuclease grow.

Three years after becoming ill, Stein received the Nobel prize in chemistry, shared with fellow US biochemists Christian Anfinsen and Stanford Moore. He died suddenly on 2 February 1980 from heart failure at his home in New York.

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