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Protein Mysteries Are Uncovered Here

Drs. Prescott and MerkelDr. J. M. Prescott Looks For Results in Experiment. Watching (At Right) Is Co-Researcher Dr. Joseph Merkel

By Billy Bowles, News and Courier Staff Writer, News and Courier, August 2, 1960

Protein has long been an object of great interest in the scientist. However, it remains one of the mystery substances of this planet, though any weight lifter or expectant mother recognizes its importance in the diet.

But in science, enlightenment sometimes comes from strange sources. A College of Charleston professor and one of his research students found this to be the case.

Here is the story:

Prof. Joseph Merkel, who is director of the College’s Ft. Johnson Marine Biological Laboratory, received a report about a marine animal known as the limnoria. Hearing that the little wood-borer could digest wood although it reportedly contained no bacteria in its stomach to aid in the process, he and research student Eugene Traganza investigated.

They found the report erroneous, identifying several kinds of bacteria in the limnoria’s stomach. But carrying their experiment further, they discovered an enzyme given off by one species of bacteria which was extremely active in the digestion of protein.

Mr. Traganza became interested in the enzyme as a means of studying the structure of protein molecules. When he left Charleston to return to Texas A & M University, he discovered that a member of the faculty there, Dr. J. M. Prescott, was conducting similar experiments.

They compared notes, and Dr. Prescott learned of the limnoria, and of the enzyme which it makes use. So interested was he that he wrote Dr. Merkel here to send him some cultures of the bacteria. And now Dr. Prescott is in Charleston to study with Dr. Merkel and Dr. Gordon Braithwaite, a research associate who is studying algal proteins at the college.

“The enzyme found in the limnoria,” says Dr. Prescott, “is at least 100 times as active in working with protein as anything I had used before, I had to make a concentrate of the enzymes I was using in experiments. With the one I discovered through Gene Traganza, I have to dilute the fluid.”

To explain what he does in his experiments, Dr. Prescott uses an analogy.

“Protein is like a brick wall,” he says. “The amino acids that make up protein compare with the bricks that make up the wall. The enzyme takes the bricks apart and enable us to study what happens.”

This is the same thing that happens to protein when it is consumed in the form of beefsteak or the like. Enzymes in the human body break down the protein into its component parts—the amino acids. Using these amino acids as building blocks, the body rebuilds the protein into muscle or bone or whatever is needed.

It is important to learn the nature of this process before one can discover the secret of the phenomena known as life. Protoplasm, the substance of life, consists largely of proteins. And no living plant or animal could exist without it.

Doctors Prescott and Merkel stress that they are not on the trail of the source of life. Dr. Merkel describes their work as “basic research,” with no other goal than knowledge for it’s own sake.

However, any discovery that aids in the understanding of the nature of protein is a step in the direction of understanding life itself.