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The Prince of Pain
The Prize

University Communications

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Fall 1997
The Prize
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"The discoveries you make aren't necessarily what you were looking for in the first place. It's simply serendipity."

By Cyndy Lee
Jilly, photographer

When Paul Boyer was a brand-new graduate student in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin, dairy cattle and their reproductive problems were much on researchers' minds in the great cheese state. So the young graduate student was put to work investigating why a deficiency in vitamin E caused sterility in animals. What Boyer discovered in his study of enzymes and metabolism didn't boost Wisconsin's herd, but turned out to illuminate one of nature's most tantalizing enigmas -- and, as it happened, to earn Boyer the 1997 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

"It illustrates what often happens in science," says Boyer, now 79 and a UCLA professor since 1963. "The discoveries you make aren't necessarily what you were looking for in the first place. It's simply serendipity. And I have a tendency to be lucky."

But luck, as they say, is the residue of design. Boyer's dogged persistence through more than half a century spent in the lab finally paid off when he untangled a Gordian knot that had stymied scientists for decades. His landmark achievement: an understanding of how cells create and distribute ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the ubiquitous substance that provides energy for all living organisms, from bacteria to man.

Over several decades, the biochemist discovered the intricate mechanism by which various subunits of the ATP enzyme work together in an extraordinary way -- like rotating gears, levers and ratchets -- to generate energy within a cell. This energy is stored by the ATP molecule in a form that cells can use for brain and nerve function and muscle contraction, among other critical processes.


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