The zymologist who won a Nobel Prize

Eduard BuchnerEduard Buchner was born on 20 May 1860 and grew up in Munich, Germany, where he studied chemistry under Adolf von Baeyer at the University of Munich and botany with Karl Wilhelm von Nägeli at Munich’s Botanic Institute.

A special grant arranged by von Baeyer enabled Buchner to establish a small laboratory for research into zymology, the study of fermentation. In January 1897 he published a paper, “Über alkoholische Gärung ohne Hefezellen” (“On alcoholic fermentation without yeast cells”), which helped to advance the development of modern biochemistry.

Nowadays we accept that the chemical laws applicable to inanimate materials are equally valid in living cells. However, until late in the 19th century vitalism was still a significant part of scientific thinking.

Vitalists believed that all the functions of a living organism were due to an unknown vital force that could not be described in ordinary chemical or physical terms. Vitalism also gave rise to the basic distinction between organic and inorganic compounds as the latter did not contain this force of life.

During the 1860s Louis Pasteur proved that various yeasts and bacteria were responsible for what he called “ferments” or substances that caused fermentation and, in some cases, disease. By 1877 these ferments had been identified as enzymes, but Pasteur himself held vitalist views and he still believed that the living cell had to be present for them to work.

Twenty years later Buchner showed that the fermentation of sugar resulted from the action of enzymes contained in yeast and not the yeast cell itself.

However, he needed to make a cell-free extract of the yeast. Buchner had spent his university vacations working with his older brother Hans, a bacteriologist in Munich, and had used a hydraulic press to prepare bacterial extracts. Now he employed a similar method to prepare the material required for his experiment.

A moist paste of yeast, quartz sand and kieselguhr was crushed to break open the yeast cells and then subjected to gradually increasing pressure, up to 500 atmospheres, in a hydraulic press. The residual mass was rubbed, sieved and moistened and then pressed again. Buchner added more kieselguhr to his “press juice” and filtered it repeatedly until he had a cell-free liquid.

He found that the press juice could ferment sugar to give carbon dioxide and ethanol and so proved that living yeast cells were not needed for fermentation to occur. Later he named the enzyme responsible for the fermentation as zymase although we now know that this is a mixture of several enzymes.

Eduard Buchner was awarded the 1907 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his biochemical investigations and his discovery of non-cellular fermentation. He died on 13 August 1917 from injuries received while serving in a front-line field hospital at Folkschani in Romania.

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