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Boyer, the 1997 Nobel Prize for Chemistry was "an unexpected
pleasure." It had been 20 years since he formulated a hypothesis
to describe what he calls "the most prominent chemical reaction
in the whole world." It is the process by which molecules produce
ATP (adenosine triphosphate), thereby transmuting light, air, water
and food into the energy required for both plant and animal life.
had been greeted with disbelief when he theorized that the previously
mysterious process is the work of a "beautiful little machine"
that operates within enzymes on the molecular level. His proposed
resolution of a major unsolved problem in biochemistry threatened
to "change the paradigm," Boyer remembers, and "the
leading journal" in his field -The Journal of Biological
Chemistry-declined to publish his work.
then, the tiny machine, which Boyer calls an "internal rotation
mechanism," has been photographed in action. But at the time
he proposed it, Boyer's hypothesis was so original that a methodology
to either confirm or disprove it had not been invented. With his
work still clouded by uncertainty, Boyer decided that his career
was over. In 1989 he closed his laboratory at UCLA and retired to
the streams and mountains of Wyoming, where, at the age of 80, he
still fishes, hikes and plays both golf and tennis.
years later, Boyer experienced "one of the warmest moments
of my life" when he learned that British biochemist John Walker
had worked out the methodology required to demonstrate whether Boyer
had been right or wrong. By that time, Boyer had been gone from
UCLA for so long that the departmental secretary didn't know where
to send Walker's manuscript. But obscurity wasn't a problem for
Walker's methodology, one of Boyer's former graduate students "did
some elegant chemical work to demonstrate that the molecular rotation
actually occurred." Boyer's hypothesis, finally, had been proven
correct. For work that so enriched understanding of the life process
itself, he and Walker were jointly awarded the Nobel prize in 1997.