Feodor Lynen Biography (1911-1979)


Feodor Felix Konrad Lynen was born in Munich, Germany, on April 6, 1911, theseventh of eight children, to Wilhelm and Frieda (Prym) Lynen. Lynen showed an early interest in his older brother's chemistry an eventually, enrolled inthe Department of Chemistry at the University of Munich in 1930. There he studied with German chemist and Nobel laureate Heinrich Wieland (1877-1957), whowas Lynen's principal teacher both as an undergraduate and graduate student.On February 12, 1937, Lynen received his doctorate degree. Three months later, on May 17, he married Wieland's daughter, Eva, with whom he would have five children: Peter, Annemarie, Susanne, Eva-Marie, and Heinrich.

Upon his graduation, Lynen stayed at the University of Munich in a postdoctoral research position. In 1942, he was appointed a lecturer, and eventually was made a full professor in 1953. A year later, he was named director of the newly established Max Planck Institute for Cell Chemistry. Throughout his years with the University, where he stayed until his death, Lynen supervised theresearch of nearly ninety students, many of whom reached leading positions inacademia or industry.

In the first years after World War II, German scientists were spurned by their European and American colleagues. Only four German biochemists were invitedto attend the First International Congress of Biochemistry held in Cambridge, England, in July of 1949. Lynen, one of the four, made an ideal good-will ambassador for Germany because of his good sense of humor and the fondness hehad for parties. His cheery nature and solid research drew many foreign scientists to Munich. His magnetic personality was formally recognized years laterwhen, in 1975, he was chosen to serve as president of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, an institution devoted to fostering relations between Germany and the international scientific community.

During the 1940s, Lynen began studying how the living cell changes simple chemical compounds into sterols and lipids, complex molecules that the body needs to sustain life. The long sequence of steps and the roles various enzymes and vitamins played in this complicated metabolic process were not well understood. After the war, Lynen began to publish his early findings. At the same time, he became aware of similar work being conducted in the United States byKonrad Bloch. Eventually, Lynen and Bloch began to correspond, sharingtheir preliminary discoveries with each other. By working in this manner, the scientists determined the sequence of thirty-six steps by which animal cells produce cholesterol.

One of the breakthroughs in the cholesterol synthesis work came in 1951 whenLynen published a paper describing the first step in the chain of reactions that resulted in the production of cholesterol. He had discovered that a compound known as acetyl-coenzyme A, which is formed when an acetate radical reacts with coenzyme A, was needed to begin the chemical chain reaction. For the first time, the chemical structure of acetyl-coenzyme A was described in accurate detail. By solving this complex biochemical problem, Lynen established his international reputation and created a new set of challenging biochemical problems. Determining the structure of acetyl-coenzyme A supplied Lynen with the discovery he needed to advance his research.

During his rehabilitation from a serious ski injury at the end of 1951, Lynencontemplated how the structure and action of acetyl-coenzyme A made it a likely participant in other biochemical processes. Upon his return to the lab, Lynen began investigating the role of acetyl-coenzyme A in the biosynthesis offatty acids and discovered that, as with cholesterol, this substance was thenecessary first step. Lynen also investigated the catabolism of fatty acids,the chemical reactions that produce energy when fatty acids in foods are burned up to form carbon dioxide and water.

In addition to elucidating the role of acetyl-coenzyme A, Lynen's research revealed the importance of many other chemicals in the body. One of the most significant of these was his work with the vitamin biotin. In the late 1950s, Lynen demonstrated that biotin was needed for the production of fat.

Lynen and Bloch shared the Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology in 1964, largely because the Nobel Committee recognized the medical importance of their work. Medical authorities knew that an accumulation of cholesterol in the walls of arteries and in blood contributed to diseases of the circulatory system,including arteriosclerosis, heart attacks, and strokes. In itstribute to Lynen and Bloch, the Nobel Committee noted that a more complete understanding of the metabolism of sterols and fatty acids promised toreveal the possible role of cholesterol in heart disease. Any future researchinto the link between cholesterol and heart disease, the Nobel committee observed, would have to be based on the findings of Lynen and Bloch.

In 1972, Lynen moved to the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry, which hadjust recently been founded. Between 1974 and 1976, Lynen was acting directorof the Institute. He continued to oversee a lab at the University of Munich,however.

At the end of his life, Lynen was a renowned scientist, and a proud Bavarian.The author of over three hundred scholarly pieces, Lynen was also praised asa hard-working man who expected much of himself and his students. Six weeksafter an aneurism operation, Lynen died on August 6, 1979, at the age of 68.

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