August 2010

Retrospective: Bert Lester Vallee (1919–2010)

Bert Vallee is especially well known for his identification of zinc in various metalloproteins and enzymes. Because of his work on the role of metals in biological systems, many consider him to be the “father of metallobiochemistry.” Among the many zinc proteins studied in his laboratory, carboxypeptidase merits special mention. His laboratory carried out very careful and extensive mechanistic studies of this enzyme that not only elucidated its reaction mechanism but also provided structural information. Again, multiple techniques were used in this work, including spectroscopy, stopped-flow kinetics and chemical modification. In particular, the roles of specific amino acid residues at the active site were assessed. When the X-ray structure ultimately emerged, Bert’s results proved to be remarkably accurate. 

Alcohol dehydrogenase was another zinc-containing enzyme extensively studied by the Vallee laboratory. Bert was especially interested in the role of this enzyme in alcohol metabolism and the general problem of alcohol addiction. He showed that genetics are important for the disease of alcoholism, and his work has led to clinical trials of drugs for the treatment of the disease. In 1957, he discovered the unique protein metallothionein, a low-molecular weight cysteine-rich protein. The protein binds zinc atoms very tightly and has been implicated in the homeostasis of zinc metabolism. It also binds many other metals tightly, and recent results suggest that the redox properties of copper, when bound to metallothionein, may be of significance in neurodegenerative diseases.

As a consultant to Monsanto, he initiated one of the early collaborations between a university and industry. The research was directed toward isolating chemicals that led to new blood vessels in tumors. His laboratory characterized one of these chemicals, angiogenin, which proved to be a ribonuclease analog.

Bert’s bibliography includes more than 650 publications, comprising research articles, books and reviews. He was recognized widely for his scientific accomplishments and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Among his many awards were the Linderstrom-Lang Medal, the Willard Gibbs Medal from the American Chemical Society and the William C. Rose Award from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. He received honorary degrees and professorships throughout the world and served on the editorial boards of multiple journals.

Bert wanted to leave a living memorial for science, and, in 1995, he and his wife Natalie, known as “Kuggie” to her friends, established the Vallee Foundation to foster originality, creativity and leadership in science. A primary activity of the foundation is to fund honorary Vallee professorships for well-known scientists. The purpose of these short-term (typically four weeks) visiting professorships is to permit accomplished scientists to explore new areas and to establish close interactions with other successful senior investigators that might lead to new knowledge. Bert approached this foundation with his usual passion and zeal, and many researchers and laboratories already have benefited from his endeavors. At the time of his death, he was organizing a meeting of the Vallee Foundation for the summer of 2010. Although Bert was adamant about not wanting a memorial service, this meeting will be held as a living tribute to a remarkable man. He will be sorely missed by his friends and colleagues, but his scientific accomplishments and the Vallee Foundation remain as lasting remembrances.

Gordon G. Hammes (hamme001@mc.duke.edu) is the university distinguished service professor of biochemistry emeritus at Duke University, and S. James Adelstein (james_adelstein@hms.harvard.edu) is the Paul C. Cabot distinguished professor of medical biophysics at Harvard Medical School.

 

Please feel free to add your reflections on Bert Vallee in the comment section below.

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Great piece about a great man. My father, Gustave Dammin cohabited and bowels, dusty pipes and basement of the Brigham. He admired Bert Vallee and talked about him frequently at our dinner table. Tris Dammin

 

I miss Professor Vallee greatly as his postdoctoral student! He is my memto as a great scientist. He was always kind to me and showed me how to do "science" with exact accuracy. In addition, he emphasized application of science to real world such as to cure human diseases. Soo-Ik Chang (Cheongju, Repulic of Korea)

 

Bert approached me after I gave talk at MIT in 1952 on eosinophils, and encouraged me to pursue a method for centrifugal separation of white cells from blood. We eventually published a paper together (my first) on the method. I am indebted to him for his friendship and encouragement early on in my career.Bernard W. Agranoff

 

I knew Bert Vallee in his early days at MIT. He was always a kind and insightful person and he pursued his interest in metalloproteins with great vigor and imagination. Robert Sinsheimer

 

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