- William Astbury
William Thomas Astbury FRS (Bill Astbury,
25 February, 1898— 4 June, 1961) was an English physicistand molecular biologist who made pioneering X-ray diffraction studies of biological molecules. His work on keratinprovided the foundation for Linus Pauling's discovery of the alpha helix. He also studied the structure for DNAin 1937 and made the first step in the elucidation of its structure.
Astbury was the fourth child of seven, born in Longton, Stoke-on-Trent,His father, William Edwin Astbury, was a potter and provided comfortably forhis family. Astbury also had a younger brother, Norman, with whom heshared a love of music.
Astbury might well have become a potter but, luckily, won a scholarship to
Longton High School, where his interests were shaped by the Headmaster and second master, both chemists. After becoming Head boy and winning the Dukeof Sutherland's Gold Medal, Astbury won the only local scholarship available and attended to Jesus College, Cambridge.
After two terms at Cambridge, his studies were interrupted by service during the
First World War. A poor medical rating following appendectomy resulted in his posting in 1917 to Cork, Irelandwith the Royal Army Medical Corps. He later returned to Cambridge andfinished his last year with a specialization in physics.
After graduating from Cambridge, Astbury worked with
William Bragg, first at University College Londonand then, in 1923, at the Davy-Faraday Laboratoryat the Royal Institutionin London. Fellow students included many eminent scientists, including Kathleen Lonsdaleand J. D. Bernaland others. Astbury showed great enthusiasm for his studies and published papers in "classic crystallography, such as thestructure of tartaric acid.
X-ray diffraction studies of fibrous proteins
In 1928, Astbury was given a lectureship at the
University of Leedswhere he studied the properties of fibrous substances such as keratinand collagenwith funding from the textile industry. (Wool is made of keratin.) These substances did not produce sharp patterns of spots like crystals, but the patterns provided physical limits on any proposed structures.
In the early 1930s, Astbury showed that there were drastic changes in the diffraction of moist wool or hair fibers as they are stretchedsignificantly (100%). The data suggested that the unstretched fibers had a coiled molecular structure with a characteristic repeat of 5.1 Å(=0.51 nm). Astbury proposed that (1) the unstretched protein molecules formed a helix (which he called the α-form); and (2) the stretching caused the helix to uncoil, forming an extended state (which he called the β-form). Although incorrect in their details, Astbury's models were correct in essence and correspond to modern elements of
secondary structure, the α-helix and the β-strand (Astbury's nomenclaturewas kept), which were developed twenty years later by Linus Paulingand Robert Coreyin 1951. Hans Neurathwas the first to showthat Astbury's models could not be correct in detail, because theyinvolved clashes of atoms. Interestingly, Neurath's paper and Astbury's data inspired H. S. Taylor (1941,1942) and Maurice Huggins (1943) to propose models of keratin that are very close to the modern α-helix.
In 1931, Astbury was also the first to propose that mainchain-mainchain
hydrogen bonds(i.e., hydrogen bonds between the backbone amidegroups) contributed to stabilizing protein structures. His initialinsight was taken up enthusiastically by several researchers, including Linus Pauling.
Astbury's worked moved on to X-ray studies of many proteins (including
myosin, epiderminand fibrin) and he was able to deduce from the diffraction patterns that the molecules of these substances were coiled and folded.
In 1937 Torbjörn Caspersson of Sweden sent him well prepared samples of
DNAfrom calf thymus. The fact that DNA produced a diffraction pattern indicated that it also had a regular structure and it might be feasible to deduce it. Astbury reported that DNA's structure repeated every 2.7 nanometres and that the bases lay flat, stacked, 0.34 nanometres apart. At a symposium in 1938 at Cold Spring Harbor, Astbury pointed out that the 0.34 nanometre spacing was the same as amino acids in polypeptide chains. (The currently accepted value for the spacing of the bases in B-form of DNA is 0.332 nm.)
In 1946 Astbury presented a paper at a symposium in
Cambridgein which he said: "Biosynthesis is supremely a question of fitting molecules or parts of molecules against another, and one of the great biological developments of our time is the realisation that probably the most fundamental interaction of all is that between the proteins and the nucleic acids." He also said that the spacing between the nucleotides and the spacing of amino acidsin proteins "was not an arithmetical accident".
Astbury's was unable to propose the correct structure of DNA from his rudimentary data. However in 1952
Linus Paulingused Astbury's insufficient data to propose a structure for DNA, which was also incorrect. Nevetheless Astbury's insights led directly to the work of Maurice Wilkinsand Rosalind Franklinand from there to the structure of DNA devised by Francis Crickand James D. Watsonin 1953.
In later life he was given many awards and honorary degrees.
Personal qualities and history
Astbury was known for his unfailing
cheerfulness, idealism, imaginationand enthusiasm. He foresaw correctly the tremendous impact of molecular biologyand transmitted his vision to his students, "his euphoric evangelizing zeal transforming laboratory routine into a great adventure" (Bailey reference below). Astbury's enthusiasm may also account for an occasional lack of scientific caution observable in his work; Astbury could make speculative interpretations sound plausible.
Astbury was an excellent writer and lecturer; his works are characterized by remarkable clarity and an easy-going, natural manner (which might require considerable work on his part!). He also enjoyed music, playing both piano and violin.
Astbury met Frances Gould when he was stationed in Cork, Ireland with the
Royal Army Medical Corpsduring World War I. They married in 1922 and had a son Bill and a daughter.
* Bailey K. (1961) "William Thomas Astbury (1898-1961): A Personal Tribute", "Adv. Protein Chem.", 17, x-xiv.
* Astbury WT and Woods HJ. (1931) "The Molecular Weights of Proteins", "Nature", 127, 663-665.
* Astbury WT and Street A. (1931) "X-ray studies of the structures of hair, wool and related fibres. I. General", "Trans. R. Soc. Lond.", A230, 75-101.
* Astbury WT. (1933) "Some Problems in the X-ray Analysis of the Structure of Animal Hairs and Other Protein Fibers", "Trans. Faraday Soc.", 29, 193-211.
* Astbury WT and Woods HJ. (1934) "X-ray studies of the structures of hair, wool and related fibres. II. The molecular structure and elastic properties of hair keratin", "Trans. R. Soc. Lond.", A232, 333-394.
* Astbury WT and Sisson WA. (1935) "X-ray studies of the structures of hair, wool and related fibres. III. The configuration of the keratin molecule and its orientation in the biological cell", "Proc. R. Soc. Lond.", A150, 533-551.
* Neurath H. (1940) "Intramolecular folding of polypeptide chains in relation to protein structure", "J. Phys. Chem.", 44, 296-305.
* Taylor HS. (1942) "Large molecules through atomic spectacles", "Proc. Am. Philos. Soc.", 85, 1-12.
* Huggins M. (1943) "The structure of fibrous proteins", "Chem. Rev.", 32, 195-218.
* Bernal, J. D. (1963). "William Thomas Astbury. 1898-1961."
Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. v. 9, p. 1-35.
* cite encyclopedia
last = Olby
first = Robert
title = Astbury, William Thomas
Dictionary of Scientific Biography
volume = 1
pages = 319-320
publisher = Charles Scribner's Sons
location = New York
date = 1970
isbn = 0684101149
* [http://www.astbury.leeds.ac.uk/ Astbury Centre for Structural Biology]
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