Earl Sutherland Biography (1915-1974)


Earl Wilbur Sutherland, Jr., the fifth of six children in his family, was born on November 19, 1915, in Burlingame, Kansas. His father, Earl Wilbur Sutherland, a Wisconsin native, had attended Grinnell College for two years and farmed in New Mexico and Oklahoma before settling in Burlingame to run a dry-goods business, where Earl Wilbur, Jr., and his siblings worked. Sutherland's mother, Edith M. Hartshorn, came from Missouri. She had been educated at a "ladies college," and had received some nursing training. In 1933 Sutherland entered Washburn College in Topeka, Kansas. Supporting his studies by working asan orderly in a hospital, Sutherland graduated with a B.S. in 1937. Sutherland then entered Washington University Medical School in St. Louis, Missouri. There he enrolled in a pharmacology class taught by Carl Ferdinand Cori. Impressed by Sutherland's abilities, Cori offered him a job as a student assistant. This was Sutherland's first experience with research. The research on the sugar glucose that Sutherland undertook in Cori's laboratory started him on aline of inquiry that led to his later groundbreaking studies.

Sutherland received his M.D. in 1942, after which he worked for one year as an intern at Barnes Hospital while continuing to do research in Cori's laboratory. Sutherland was called into service during World War II as a battalion surgeon under General George S. Patton.

In 1945, Sutherland returned to Washington University in St. Louis where he decided to commit himself to a career in research. By 1953, Sutherland had advanced to the rank of associate professor at Washington University. During these years he came into contact with many leading figures in biochemistry, including Arthur Kornberg, Edwin G. Krebs, T. Z. Posternak, and others now recognized as among the founders of modern molecular biology. But Sutherland preferred, for the most part, to do his research independently. While at WashingtonUniversity, Sutherland began a project to understand how an enzyme known asphosphorylase breaks down glycogen, a form of the sugar stored in the liver.He also studied the roles of the hormone adrenaline, also known as epinephrine, and glucagon, secreted by the pancreas, in stimulating the release of energy-producing glucose from glycogen.

Sutherland left Washington for Western Reserve (now Case Western) Universityin Cleveland in 1953. It was during the ten years he spent in Cleveland thatSutherland clarified an important mechanism by which hormones produce their effects. Scientists had previously thought that hormones acted on whole organs. Sutherland, however, showed that hormones stimulate individual cells in a process that takes place in two steps. First, a hormone attaches to specific receptors on the outside of the cell membrane. Sutherland called the hormone a"first messenger." The binding of the hormone to the membrane triggers release of a molecule known as cyclic AMP within the cell. Cyclic AMP then goes onto play many roles in the cell's metabolism, and Sutherland referred to themolecule as the "second messenger" in the mechanism of hormone action. In particular, Sutherland studied the effects of the hormone adrenaline, also called epinephrine, on liver cells. When adrenaline binds to liver cells, cyclic AMP is released and directs the conversion of sugar from a stored form into aform the cell can use.

Sutherland made two more important discoveries while at Western Reserve. He found that other hormones also spur the release of cyclic AMP when they bind to cells, in particular, the adrenocorticotropic hormone and the thyroid-stimulating hormone. This implied that cyclic AMP was a sort of universal intermediary in this process, and it explained why different hormones might induce similar effects. In addition, cyclic AMP was found to play an important role inthe metabolism of one-celled organisms, such as the amoeba and the bacteriumEscherichia coli, which do not have hormones. That cyclic AMP is found in both simple and complex organisms implies that it is a very basic and important biological molecule and that it arose early in evolution and has been conserved throughout millennia.

In 1963 Sutherland moved to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he was able to devote more of his time to research. At Vanderbilt, Sutherland continued his work on cyclic AMP. He and other researchers continued todiscover physiological processes in different tissues and various animal species that are influenced by cyclic AMP, for example in brain cells and cancercells. In the meantime, his pioneering studies had opened up a new field of research. By 1971, as many as two thousand scientists were studying cyclic AMP.

For most of his career Sutherland was well-known mainly to his scientific colleagues. In the early 1970s, however, a rush of awards gained him more widespread public recognition. Most notably, in 1971 he was awarded the Nobel Prizefor "his long study of hormones, the chemical substances that regulate virtually every body function." In 1973 Sutherland moved to the University of Miami. Shortly thereafter, he suffered a massive esophageal hemorrhage, and he died on March 9, 1974, after surgery for internal bleeding, at the age of 58.

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