Sunday, March 14, 2010

"Victory on Paper" (Only A Trillion)

According to Isaac Asimov's Essays, (a site that lists them and what books they are collected in, and reviews them, but doesn't go in-depth as ths blog does), "Victory on Paper" first appeared in the September, 1955 issue of Astounding, and anthologized for the first and only time in 1957 in Only A Trillion.

It is a continuation from his essay which appeared in the February 1955 issue, "Hemoglobin and the Universe."

The Quotable Asimov
None in this essay.

First Paragraph
The key to the answer to the problem of protein structure was found by a Russian. This was Michael Tawett.

In 1906, Tswett submitted a paper to a German botanical journal in which he described a series of experiments involving a new, and, as it turned out, revolutionary technique. Tswett was a botanist who was interested in the colored pigments one could soak out of plant leaves by using various solvents. Among those pigments is xhlorophyl which plants use to concvert solar energy into food and without which life on Earth -- except for certain micro-organisms, would quickly become impossible. Naturally, biochemists were yearning at the time to get at those plant pigments, separate one from another and figure out the structure of each. But how was one to go about separating the unholy mess into individual components? Ordinary chemical procedures simply didn't come close to doing the job.

Topic
Michael Tswett, a Russian, invents chromtography, which separates out the pigments of plants. However, because he's a Russian writing in Russian, and a botanist rather than a biochemist, allowed German biochemists - the biochemists of the age, to dismiss his work. In 1931, German biochemists adopted his method, however.

It was by using chromatography that scientists discovered the structure of protein molecules. Once the structure of these various proteins were known, they could, in theory, be synthesized in the lab. Asimov mentions the work in synthesizing insulin, for exmaple.

Who knew Novacaine is a synthetic form of coacaine??]

Final Paragraph
It took Sanger and his men eight years to solve the "impossible" problem of finding one arrangement out of several googols of possible arrangments. We shoundn't object to giving biochemists a few more years to see what other impossibilities they can knock off.

Note
The anthology, Only a Trillion, was published in 1957 with new material - the Notes, written in 1976. In his Note for this essay, Asimov points out:

Since this article was first written, in March 1955, the various methods for working out the intimate structure of protein molecules have advanced to the point where they have become routine - even automated.... In addition, chemists have been working out the intimately detailed structure of various nucleic acids, the only othr group of compounds to compare in complexity and importance to the proteins.

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