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New Beer in an Old Bottle:
Eduard Buchner and the
Growth of Biochemical Knowledge

This page describes the book New Beer in an Old Bottle: Eduard Buchner and the Growth of Biochemical Knowledge, edited by Athel Cornish-Bowden and published by Universitat de València (1997): ISBN 84-370-3328-4

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Purpose of the book

The objectives of this book are three-fold: to provide a convenient source of Eduard Buchner’s classic article in its original form and in English and Spanish translations; to describe the historical context in which the discovery of cell-free fermentation was made; and to illustrate how understanding of multi-enzyme systems has developed in the subsequent 100 years.

Publication details

Published 1997 by Universitat de València (Valencia, Spain) in the series Col.lecció Oberta, ISBN 84-370-3328-4; paperback, 252 pages; price 2600 pesetas. This is equivalent to about 17 US dollars, 10 UK pounds, 100 French francs or 30 German marks.

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CONTENTS

Note. In the list below, chapters for which PDF files are available are marked as links with [PDF] after the page numbers.

CONTRIBUTORS

PREFACE

In the closing years of the 20th century it is easy to forget that the predominant assumptions in biology towards the end of the preceding century were very different from our own. One of these was that living beings are provided with a vital force that necessarily endows the processes within living forms with characteristics different from those of lifeless processes. The chemistry of metabolic reactions — the word metabolic was coined as early as 1839 by the 29-year old Theodor Schwann — provided a central example of the evocative mystery of the vital force: living chemistry, along with the vital force, resisted study because both were necessarily destroyed when life was destroyed. The chemistry of living beings was regarded as different from all other chemistry, and so it could not be studied. Resort to vital force permitted ignorance to parade as explanation, and awe to usurp observation. Such so-called vitalist views, based almost exclusively on belief, were not accepted universally — Schwann, for instance, did not subscribe to them — but they predominated. Vitalism, proclaimed by leading early 19th century chemists such as Berzelius and Liebig, continued to hold sway over a later generation, led by a man like Louis Pasteur, trained as a chemist and renowned as skilled experimenter and respected biological thinker. Conviction persists when observation is banned, in the word of Herbert Spencer, into the region of the Unknowable. It can be said with some certainty that the development of enzymology, and the attendant creation of modern biochemistry, were inhibited by the dominance of vitalistic ideas.

The climate of vitalistic conviction could be changed only by accidental discoveries that would teach the beginners and convert, or at least mollify, the established orthodoxy. The circle of the interdependence of thought and observation was in fact broken by a decisive experiment, unplanned and unexpected. Eduard Buchner accidentally discovered in 1897 that extracts of yeast cells could bring about alcoholic fermentation. The prerogative of the living cell was usurped by a material that had been produced by the living cell but that did not need the living cell for its function; in modern terms, in vitro reproduced in vivo. By the time Buchner died in 1917, several journals devoted to the new science of biochemistry were established — Biochemisches Zeitschrift in Germany, the Journal of Biological Chemistry in the USA, and the Biochemical Journal in Great Britain. The revolution that he had brought about, and which the existence of these journals illustrated, stimulated the enormous growth of biochemistry that has continued throughout the 20th Century. The living force as a necessary accompaniment of a process that occurred in the living cell had been banished to the scrap heap of vanquished ideas.

We should commemorate the centenary of Buchner’s discovery not only because of its inherent importance and interest, but also because vitalist ways of thinking have by no means disappeared, and modern biologists need to be constantly on their guard against them. Far worse than vitalism, which in Pasteur’s hands was, after all, based on rational interpretation of apparently coherent observations, the past few decades have seen the return of obscurantist mysticism in the form of so-called creation science and other abuses of the intellect. Forgetting the history of biology is no way to combat these, and they provide another reason why it is worthwhile to recall how our current ideas came into existence.

In the first part of this book we reproduce Buchner’s classic paper, not only as a facsimile of the original German, but also in English and Spanish translations. The second part is primarily historical, describing the context in which Buchner’s experiments were done, and illustrating some of the developments that they stimulated. Readers may notice some overlap between the different chapters in this part: I have not tried to eliminate this, believing it more important to give the different authors freedom to develop the topics that interested them. In the final part we remember that Buchner’s experiments were not only the beginning of enzymology; they were also the beginnings of the study of multi-enzyme systems. Being more complicated than the study of isolated enzymes, this has taken far longer to come of age, but is now a subject of continuously increasing activity.

The idea of compiling this volume came from Juli Peretó, and I thank him for asking me to edit it, and for arranging for the University of València to publish it. I am also very grateful to Herbert Friedmann, not only for his own impressive contributions to the book, but also for his great help in catalysing first contacts with some of the other authors.