March 2012

From butterflies to politicians


Bengt Mannervik of Stockholm University and Uppsala University didn’t start out life as a Mannervik. He was born as Bengt Eriksson, but in 1968, at the age of 25, he formally took on his maternal grandparents’ name. This and other interesting nuggets are in Mannervik’s recent “Reflections” article for the Journal of Biological Chemistry collection of memoirs, contributed over the years by outstanding molecular biologists and biochemists (1).

Mannervik’s scientific career largely has focused on glutathione, a molecule critical for biological redox reactions and detoxification. His research interest got sparked when he was an undergraduate student at Stockholm University in the early 1960s. Over 50 years, his group has discovered and characterized several forms of glutathione transferase, known as GSTs; analyzed how the action of GSTs could protect against certain neurodegenerative diseases; and teased out details of unconventional enzymatic behavior using regression analyses, which are statistical tools for understanding several variables.

Mannervik’s Uncle Folke figured prominently in his childhood. The husband of his paternal aunt, Folke Fridén was an amateur scientist who used his kitchen as a lab. (Mannervik doesn’t reveal what his Aunt Sigrid’s reaction was to this.) Fridén enlisted Mannervik and Mannervik’s brother to help him with experiments on butterflies, moths, caterpillars and the developmental stages in between. Mannervik was introduced to biochemistry as they used electrophoresis to discover the types of colored proteins in larvae and pupae. Fridén even wrote a thesis on the energy metabolism of caterpillars after conducting experiments based on defecation frequencies as a measure of food intake and metabolism. Mannervik says he was the only one in the family who found the dissertation mesmerizing.

Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and other Swedish ministers visited with Bengt Mannervik, left, in 2008.

In 1962 Mannervik enrolled at Stockholm University as a chemistry undergraduate student. For a summer research project, he began to work on glutathione. While still an undergrad, Mannervik wrote an article for a Swedish newspaper about the biochemical origins of life, compiling information from sources as wide-ranging as Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and Miller and Urey’s now-classic paper describing the synthesis of organic compounds from inorganic starting materials under simulated conditions (2). This article caught the attention of Klas-Bertil Augustinsson, who admitted Mannervik as a graduate student at Stockholm University, where Mannervik continued to work on glutathione.

Mannervik’s work has taken him through biochemical purification and characterization of enzymes, statistical analyses of their behaviors, genetic recombination to produce GSTs with unnatural properties and other adventures. His research, although mostly based on fundamental explorations, has applications in fields as wide-ranging as aging and viniculture.

Mannervik has been a strong advocate for science funding. In 2001, he wrote a rebuttal to the Swedish minister of education and science’s claim that Swedish research was well-funded. The rebuttal earned Mannervik lengthy visits over the years from another flighty species, politicians. These visits allowed him to explain to them the nature of fundamental research and how funding opportunities keep the whole endeavor going. Mannervik is right to be proud that in 2008, his conversations helped boost funding to Swedish research by 5 billion kronor (about $750 million by today’s exchange rate).

  1. 1. Mannervik, B. Five decades with glutathione and the GSTome (2012). J. Biol. Chem. doi:10.1074/jbc.X112.342675.
  2. 2. Miller, S. L., and Urey, H. C. Organic compound synthesis on the primitive earth (1959). Science, 130 (3370), 245.

Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay ( is the senior science writer for ASBMB Today and the technical editor for the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

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