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Edelman, Gerald (Maurice)

brain university structure acids

(1929– ) [ay dlman] US biochemist: pioneer in study of molecular structure of antibodies.

Edelman originally planned a career as a concert violinist, but came to realize that he lacked the extroversion needed for success as a performer. He had also been attracted to science and, believing rather ingenuously that medical school was a suitable start (his father was a physician in New York), he entered the University of Pennsylvania. After qualifying he worked as a US Army physician in Paris, where his interest in proteins, physical chemistry and immunology began, and he returned to New York to work at Rockefeller University in this field.

During his doctorate studies at Rockefeller University Edelman investigated the immunoglobulins and after he joined the staff there he continued his interest in these compounds. They are formed on the surface of B-lymphocytes and when released into the body fluids are known as antibodies. They form a class of closely related proteins, each specific in its ability to bind with a particular antigen; the system forms a major part of the vertebrate animal’s defence against infection. Edelman found that human immunoglobulin, a large protein molecule, is a combination of two kinds of protein chains (‘light’ and ‘heavy’) linked by sulphur bridges. He went on to study the sequence of amino acids in the chains of the immunoglobulin IgG and by 1969 had achieved this; the 1330 amino acids form a Y-shaped structure, in which the amino acids in the tips are very variable but the main part of the structure is constant. This result could be linked with R R PORTER’S biochemical and immunological study of IgG to give a more detailed picture of this molecule, which is likely to be typical of antibodies (see Porter’s entry for diagram). His later work was on neural networks and the computerized simulation of brain function. Edelman and Porter shared the Nobel Prize for 1972.

Since then Edelman has worked on embryonic development and has identified the adhesive molecules that have a central place in morphogenesis. Always attracted by large problems in rather unexplored fields, he has since attacked the difficult problem of the nature and origin of consciousness. He visualized brain development as a process in which random neurone connections are progressively refined by a process akin to Darwinian selection, to give a brain in which effective activities are retained and useless ones discarded. Neuroscientists are divided in their response to this idea, some seeing it as of little worth while others foresee it as the start of a fruitful revolution in their field.

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