Klaus Biemann

Klaus Biemann
Benjamin Franklin Medal
Massachusetts Institute of Technology | Cambridge, Massachusetts
For his pioneering achievements in developing the chemical analysis tool of mass spectrometry and using it to determine the structure of complex molecules of biological and medical interest.

Scientific research does not take place in a vacuum; rather it builds on the work of generations of scientists. For Klaus Biemann, professor emeritus in the Department of Chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT], one could say it began with J.J. Thomson's mass spectrometer, an instrument he developed in England nearly a century ago when Thomson set out to measure the atomic weights of rare atmospheric gases by ionizing neutral particles (causing them to lose an electron and thus have a positive charge). Passing the newly created ions through electric and magnetic fields, enabled Thomson to, in essence, sort the ions by weight. Shortly thereafter F. W. Aston used the mass spectrometer when he discovered isotopes, one of two or more atoms that have the same atomic number, but a different number of neutrons.

By World War II, the mass spectrometer had evolved into an invaluable analytical tool in the production of the advanced hydrocarbon fuels needed for jet engines and high-powered cars. Biemann, trained in synthetic organic chemistry, was appointed a junior faculty member in the Department of Chemistry at MIT in 1957. He had learned about mass spectrometry quite by accident and decided to use it for a quite different purpose, namely the determination of the structure of natural products, complex molecules produced by plants and other organisms. Mass spectra of organic molecules measure the mass of the fragments formed upon ionization with an electron beam. From these fragments, Biemann learned to deduce the way a molecule is put together, i.e. its chemical structure. His early successes included the major component of the fragrance of roses (in collaboration with a group of Swiss scientists) and the structures of Vinblastine and Vincristine, the first anti-cancer drugs. Isolated by Eli Lilly & Co. from a tropical plant, these alkaloids are still used today as a chemotherapeutic.

Throughout his career at MIT, Biemann has maintained his fascination with determining the structure of proteins. His mass spectrometric approach enabled him to solve many problems in protein structure not amenable to general methods. Among these were the structure of bacteriorhodopsin, the crucial protein involved in vision, and a group of very large enzymes important in the process of building up a protein one amino acid at a time. Biemann and the about 150 graduate and postdoctoral students he trained, thus laid the groundwork for a new field in biochemistry, proteomics. It makes it possible to study the cascade of proteins and the modifications that occur in the cell which determine its function from formation to death. Understanding these processes is crucial to designing drugs which prevent aberrations (disease). Mass spectrometry is now indispensable in the synthesis and manufacture of such pharmaceuticals.

Biemann has made major contributions to medicine and pharmacology through mass spectrometry. The direct coupling of a gas chromatograph with the mass spectrometer allowed for faster, more efficient measurement of the mass spectra of the components of complex mixtures, such as plant extracts for alkaloids, or peptides for protein sequencing. This methodology is now widely used for clinical, forensic, environmental and other analyses. In 1976, Biemann even sent a miniaturized instrument to Mars as part of the Viking Mission to look for organic compounds at the surface of the Red Planet.

Born in Innsbruck, Austria in 1926, Biemann earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry at the university there in 1951, before coming to MIT in 1955. Biemann's many awards and honors include the Thomson Medal (1991), the first Field and Franklin Award in applied Mass Spectrometry from the American Chemical Society (1986), the Fritz Pregl Medal of the Austrian Microchemical Society (1977), the Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal from NASA (1977) and the Stas Medal of the Belgian Chemical Society (1962). He was elected to the National Academy of Science in 1993 and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1966. He has authored over 350 scientific publications and a book, Mass Spectrometry: Organic Chemical Applications (1962).

Information as of April 2007