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U.C. Berkeley Library Web

Four University of California Bioscientists

Melvin Calvin (1911-1997)

Photosynthesis

Biography

Melvin Calvin is remembered for his work in photosynthesis for which he received a Nobel Prize in 1961. He described his research process in his autobiography, Following the Trail of Light: A Scientific Odyssey (1992):

... many years ago I used the phrase 'following the trail of light'. The word 'light' was not meant in its literal sense, but in the sense of following an intellectual concept or idea to where it might lead. My interest in living things is probably a fundamental motivation for the scientific work in the laboratory, and we created here in Berkeley one of the first and foremost interdisciplinary laboratories in the world. Perhaps my philosophy may best be expressed in the following statement: 'There is no such thing as pure science. By this I mean that physics impinges on astronomy on the one hand, and chemistry and biology on the other. The synthesis of a really new concept requires some sort of union in one mind of the pertinent aspects of several disciplines....It's no trick to get the right answer when you have all the data. The real creative trick is to get the right answer when you have only half of the data in hand and half of it is wrong and you don't know which half is wrong. When you get the right answer under these circumstances, you are doing something creative. This is really what the Calvin laboratory is all about.
Calvin received his B.S. degree from the Michigan College of Mining & Technology in 1931, followed quickly by a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Minnesota. After four years of postdoctoral work at the University of Manchester in England, Calvin accepted the position of Instructor in Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley in 1937. He rose to the rank of Professor in 1947, and from 1963 to 1980 also served as Professor of Molecular Biology. He was Director of the Laboratory of Chemical Biodynamics and simultaneously Associate Director of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (1967 to 1980).
 
Professor Calvin with algae slants, the Old Radiation Laboratory. 

Lawrence to Calvin: " … do something useful …"

In the fall of 1945, Ernest O. Lawrence, Director of the Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley, suggested to Calvin that "now is the time to do something useful with radioactive carbon," the isotope which had been discovered in 1940 in the 60 inch cyclotron at Berkeley. On February 4, 1946 Calvin submitted to Lawrence an outline of the proposed research for the interdisciplinary Bio-Organic Chemistry Group.

New use for an historic lab
 
The Old Radiation Lab

The Old Radiation Lab, a decrepit wooden structure which once housed Lawrence’s 37 inch cyclotron, was assigned to Calvin for research on photosynthesis. The room where the cyclotron had been installed was a large open space without internal walls. This "open laboratory" promoted interaction between the scientists of diverse disciplines who worked in an atmosphere of free discussion and scientific cooperation. It was a physical setting perfectly suited to the "new biology" incorporating, as it did, scientists from diverse disciplines who had much to gain from steady interaction, discussion, and cooperation. The success it wrought led directly to the innovative design of Calvin’s subsequent Laboratory of Chemical Biodynamics.

A radical new laboratory design
 
Design for the new lab

When it came time to construct a new building for the group (the Old Radiation Laboratory had been knocked down in 1959) the design incorporated the "open laboratory" concept. Calvin designed the new Laboratory of Chemical Biodynamics as a circle (sometimes referred to as the Round House or Calvin Carousel). It proved to be a source of great grief to the contractors who had no right angles with which to fix the dimensions and so they had to improvise novel techniques at every stage. Initially the building design was a semicircle attached to a rectangle, but the joint between the circular and the flat parts posed too great a roofing problem. Professor Calvin then declared, "If we can't have a half a circle, we'll have a whole circle." Construction began in 1960 and the formal dedication took place on April 1, 1964. Funding came from the Regents of the University of California, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Kettering Foundation which gave the last crucial $300,000.

Chemist as bioscientist

Chemistry, Calvin’s discipline, stands between physics and biology, utilizing the principles of physical science to solve basic problems in biology. Calvin’s interdisciplinary group applied the techniques of many scientific areas to the solution of problems in biochemistry and molecular biology, in particular elucidation of the path of carbon in photosynthesis for which Calvin was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Photosynthesis deciphered

Photosynthesis involves a complex series of reactions taking place in living plant cells. Using the carbon-14 isotope as a tracer and analytic techniques such as paper chromatography and radioautography, the Calvin group exposed single cell green algae for various times to radioactive carbon dioxide. Then the plant material was killed so whatever compounds had been synthesized during the exposure to CO2 could be extracted and identified. The Calvin group mapped the complete route that carbon travels through a plant during photosynthesis, starting from its absorption as atmospheric CO2 to its conversion into carbohydrates and other organic compounds.

A "bible" for a radiocarbon factory
 
The Path of Carbon in Photosynthesis (1957) described the synthesis of carbon-14 labeled compounds and their measurement. It was the "bible" for early workers with radiocarbon.

For some years the Bio-Organic Group functioned much like an industrial factory, producing carbon-14 labeled compounds distributed by Oak Ridge Laboratory, a Tennessee headquarters for the Manhattan Project. Eventually this work was taken over by commercial firms such as Nuclear Instrument and Chemical Company and BioRad Laboratories.

A green algae "lollipop"
 
Green algae, grown in continuous cultures, were placed in the "lollipop" with the light shining on them. Carbon-14 labeled CO2 was injected into the stream of nonradioactive CO2 for a suitable period, at the end of which the algae were killed. The compounds into which the radioactive carbon had entered were analyzed by paper chromatography. 


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