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May 23, 2006
Also appeared in print May 29, 2006, p. 8


Nobel Laureate R. Bruce Merrifield Dies At 84

Rockefeller University biochemist 'revolutionized' peptide synthesis

Rachel Petkewich

Robert Bruce Merrifield, a biochemist who won the 1984 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for a method he named solid-phase peptide synthesis, died on May 14 at his home in Cresskill, N.J., after a long illness. He was 84.



The Nobel committee that bestowed Merrifield’s prize called his method “simple and ingenious” and noted that it has greatly advanced research in biochemistry, molecular biology, pharmacology, and medicine. In recent years, the method has been adapted for oligonucleotides as well as carbohydrates and other organic molecules.

Merrifield cut synthesis time from years to days by anchoring the first building block of the protein to a polymer. Previous to Merrifield’s discovery, researchers synthesized proteins in liquids. That meant painstakingly fishing out the delicate partial protein before adding the next block. In 2003, the Journal of the American Chemical Society listed Merrifield’s classic 1963 paper, in which he first described the solid-phase-synthesis technique, as the fifth most cited paper in the journal’s 125-year history. In 1998, C&EN named Merrifield as one of the top 75 contributors to the chemical enterprise during the magazine’s first 75 years of existence.

Merrifield and John Stewart worked to build a machine to automate the new method. In 1969, Merrifield and Bernd Gutte announced that they had used the machine for the first synthesis of an enzyme, ribonuclease A. Merrifield continued advancing science from the lab until a few years ago.

“We can do things today that would be completely impossible without the solid phase,” says Svetlana Mojsov, a research associate professor at Rockefeller University who did her graduate work with Merrifield. “He certainly revolutionized the field.” But she adds that the professor, who generously gave his time and advice to his graduate students and colleagues, was modest and would likely have shied away from the word “revolutionize.”

Merrifield was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on July 15, 1921, and grew up in California. He graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, with a B.A. in chemistry in 1943. He stayed at UCLA and completed his Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1949.

A year later, he moved to New York City to work as a research assistant at Rockefeller University, which was then known as the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research. In 1957, Merrifield became an assistant professor; by 1966, he was a full professor. He was named John D. Rockefeller Jr. Professor in 1983 and became emeritus nine years later.

Equally devoted to science and to his large family, Merrifield is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, a biologist who worked in his lab; one son and five daughters; and 16 grandchildren.

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