June 2011

Reflections on the biosynthesis of “a small but beautifully organized protein”

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Donald F. Steiner paying homage to French physiologist Claude Bernard in Paris in July 1967.


Many of us catalogue the chapters of our lives with turning-point texts — books, articles, maybe even songs — that mark shifts in thinking, tweaks or wholesale reversals in career courses, and revelations when we needed them or, perhaps, didn’t expect them at all. 

Such was the case for Donald F. Steiner, now professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, who begins his recent Journal of Biological Chemistry “Reflections” article by recalling his chance encounter with the 1938 book “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: The Human Organism in the Light of Modern Science.” When he came upon the tome at the Dayton Public Library, he was a chemical engineering student and working the second shift at a paper mill. 

“This book came as a wonderful revelation that could not be ignored, even though I barely understood much of it,” he writes. “Indeed, I was so enthralled by its revelations that, within just a few days, I decided that I must somehow gain access to this compelling new scientific field.” 

Since then, subsequent generations of scientists likely have indexed phases of their lives and research with texts by Steiner, whose many outstanding achievements include the discovery of proinsulin, the characterization of the proinsulin pathway, the isolation of the human C-peptide and the development of the radioimmunoassy for C-peptide used today to measure endogenous insulin production. 

Naturally, Steiner’s “Reflections” article is full of science — and storytelling — with true staying power. 

In one vignette, he recalls a 1964 trip to Europe, during which he stopped in Munich at the Max Planck Institute for Cellular Chemistry to thank Feodor Lynen for earlier extending an offer of a postdoctoral fellowship, which Steiner had turned down to take an assistant professor position at the University of Chicago biochemistry department. 

“When I arrived … I asked one of the students where Lynen’s office might be, and he replied with something like, ‘Ach, der hohe Adler (Oh, the high eagle!) — He is around the corner in that direction!’ A bit mystified by such veneration, I arrived at his office to find his very excited secretary, who told me he had just received word that morning from Stockholm that he had received the Nobel Prize and she couldn’t reach him, as he was away at a meeting,” Steiner writes. “Just then, the phone rang, and she spoke excitedly for a few minutes, then turned to me and asked: ‘Do you know who is this fellow Konrad Bloch, who shares the Nobel Prize?’ … I informed her that he was an American scientist, now at Harvard University, who had also done outstanding work on cholesterol biosynthesis. She then passed this information on to a newspaper reporter. Having thus served as Konrad Bloch’s pro tempore press agent, I left a brief congratulatory note for Lynen with her, and then my two companions and I continued our European explorations.” 

Later in the article, Steiner weighs in on the current conditions under which young investigators must operate, saying “the steady erosion of opportunities” troubles him greatly. 

“It is clearly imperative to make more openings available at the entry level so that individuals do not have to wait for positions and resources while their most creative years evaporate. Early placement of promising young investigators in responsible positions must become one of our highest priorities if we wish to preserve the unparalleled scientific productivity that we have achieved. This is one of the greatest challenges we face today in science,” Steiner writes. “Unfortunately, I have no easy solutions to propose, other than the observation that, clearly, we older scientists must reduce our consumption of resources in order to make room for the young to flourish.” 

To find out more about Steiner’s work and life, read the complete1 “Reflections” article, “Adventures with Insulin in the Islets of Langerhans,” in the May 20 print issue. 

1Don’t miss some of the best passages of the piece just because they are tucked away in the footnotes. For example, Steiner writes, “As beautiful symmetrical peaks of labeled proinsulin began to emerge just as hoped, I heard myself exclaiming ‘wow’ and ‘gee whiz.’ Suddenly, I remembered that Gene Kennedy had once remarked, ‘There are only two kinds of scientists— those who say “gee whiz” and those who say “so what” when something new and exciting appears.’ I am clearly one of the former!” 

Angela Hopp (ahopp@asbmb.org) is managing editor for special projects at ASBMB. 

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