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Biological Chemistry

1907 Chemistry Nobelist Discovered Cell-Free Fermentation

by Rachel Petkewich
December 3, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 49

Credit: Courtesy of the Edgar Fahs Smith Collection/University of Pennsylvania
Credit: Courtesy of the Edgar Fahs Smith Collection/University of Pennsylvania

For most chemists, Eduard Buchner's surname rings familiar because of the Büchner funnel and flask, common types of laboratory equipment. But the 1907 chemistry Nobel Laureate had nothing to do with these famous benchtop items-that credit belongs to industrial chemist Ernst Büchner. Rather, Buchner garnered renown for discovering cell-free fermentation.

Buchner was born in Munich on May 20, 1860. His father, a physician and professor of forensic medicine, died when Eduard was 12. His older brother Hans became a well-known bacteriologist.

The younger Buchner joined the military; for four years he worked in a canning and preserve factory to raise money for tuition. He studied organic chemistry with Adolf von Baeyer (who would win the 1905 Nobel Prize in Chemistry). At Hans' suggestion, he began examining anaerobic fermentation induced by brewer's yeast.

"As a student, Eduard Buchner made only a modest impression on his doctoral advisor," writes Lothar Jaenicke of University of Cologne, Germany, in a retrospective on Buchner (Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2007, 46, 6776). And though von Baeyer may have considered Buchner as "not having any talent for chemistry," he secured a grant for Buchner's initial yeast studies, Janicke adds.

Buchner became a professor in analytical and pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of Kiel and the University of Tübingen, both in Germany. During a break in the academic calendar in 1896, he studied fermentation at the Hygienic Institute in Munich, where his brother was on the board of directors. Buchner proved with this work that extracts from yeast cells could elicit fermentation.

This contradicted a claim by Louis Pasteur that fermentation was an "expression of life" and could occur only in living cells. Pasteur's claim had put a decades-long brake on progress in fermentation research, according to an introductory speech at Buchner's Nobel presentation. With Buchner's results, "hitherto inaccessible territories have now been brought into the field of chemical research, and vast new prospects have been opened up to chemical science."

In his studies, Buchner gathered liquid from crushed yeast cells. Then he demonstrated that components of the liquid, which he referred to as "zymases," could independently produce alcohol in the presence of sugar. "Careful investigations have shown that the formation of carbon dioxide is accompanied by that of alcohol, and indeed in just the same proportions as in fermentation with live yeast," Buchner noted in his Nobel speech.

Buchner later married and pursued agricultural and biochemical research at various universities. When war broke out in 1914, he rejoined the military. On Aug. 3, 1917, while serving as a major in Romania, he was wounded and died just over a week later at the age of 57.




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