Gerald M. Edelman Biography (1929-)


Gerald M. Edelman and his associate Rodney Porter received the 1972 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their discoveries concerning the chemical structure of antibodies. Edelman used these discoveries to draw conclusions notonly about the immune system but about the nature of consciousness as well.

Born in New York City on July 1, 1929, to Edward Edelman, a physician, and Anna Freedman Edelman, Gerald Maurice Edelman attended New York City public schools through high school. After graduating, he entered Ursinus College, in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, where he received his B.S. in chemistry in 1950. Four years later, he earned an M.D. degree from the University of Pennsylvania's Medical School, spending a year as medical house officer at Massachusetts General Hospital.

In 1955 Edelman joined the United States Army Medical Corps, practicing general medicine while stationed at a hospital in Paris. Following his 1957 discharge from the Army, Edelman returned to New York City to take a position at Rockefeller University studying under Henry Kunkel. Kunkel, with whom Edelman would conduct his Ph.D. research, was examining the unique flexibility of antibodies at the time.

In 1967, while a debate raged between two schools of scientists to explain antibody synthesis, Edelman and his associate, Joseph Gally proposed a radicaltheory that would later be confirmed as essentially correct. It depended on the vast diversity that can come from chance in a system as complex as the living organism. Each time a cell divided, they theorized, tiny errors in the transcription--or reading of the code--could occur, yielding slightly differentproteins upon each misreading. Edelman and Gally proposed that the human body turns the advantage of this variability in immunoglobulins to its own ends.Many strains of antigens when introduced into the body modify the shape of the various immunoglobulins in order to prevent the recurrence of disease.

Edelman's doctoral thesis investigated several methods of splitting immunoglobulin molecules, and, after receiving his Ph.D. in 1960 he remained at Rockefeller as a faculty member, continuing his research.

In 1961 Edelman and his colleague, M.D. Poulik succeeded in splitting IgG--one of the most studied varieties of immunoglobulin in the blood--into two components by using a method known as "reductive cleavage." The technique allowedthem to divide IgG into what are known as light and heavy chains. Data fromtheir experiments and from those of the Czech researcher, Frantisek Franek, established the intricate nature of the antibody's "active sight." The sight occurs at the folding of the two chains which forms a unique pocket to trap the antigen. Porter, who was the first to split an immunoglobulin, combined these findings with his, and, in 1962, announced that the basic structure of IgGhad been determined.

In 1965, Porter and Edelman began studying the amino acid sequence in subsections of different myeloma, cancers of the immunoglobulin-producing cells. Theproject, completed in 1969, determined the order of all 1,300 amino acids present in the protein, the longest sequence determined at that time.

By the end of the 1970s, the principle Edelman and Poulik uncovered led him to conceive a radical theory of how the brain works.

Rather than an incoming sensory signal triggering a predetermined pathway through the nervous system, Edelman theorized that it leads to a selection from among several choices. Edelman envisioned the nervous system as a fluid system based on three interrelated stages of functioning.

In the formation of the nervous system, cells receiving signals from others surrounding them fan out like spreading ivy--not to predetermined locations, but rather to regions determined by the concert of these local signals. The signals regulate the ultimate position of each cell by controlling the production of a cellular glue in the form of cell-adhesion molecules and anchoring neighboring groups of cells together. Once established, these cellular connections are fixed, but the exact pattern is different for each individual.

The second feature of Edelman's theory allows for an individual response to any incoming signal. While the vast complexity of these connections allows forsome of the variability in the brain, it is in the third feature of the theory that Edelman made the connection to immunology. The neural networks are linked to each other in layers. An incoming signal passes through and between these sheets in a specific pathway. The pathway, in this theory, ultimately determines what the brain experiences, but just as the immune system modifies itself with each new incoming virus, Edelman theorized that the brain modifiesitself in response to each new incoming signal. In this way, Edelman sees all the systems of the body being guided in one unified process, a process thatdepends on organization but that accommodates the world's natural randomness.

Dr. Edelman has received honorary degrees from a number of universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, Ursinus College, Williams College, andothers. Besides his Nobel Prize, his other academic awards include the Spenser Morris Award, the Eli Lilly Prize of the American Chemical Society, AlbertEinstein Commemorative Award, California Institute of Technology's Buchman Memorial Award, and the Rabbi Shai Schaknai Memorial Prize.

A member of many academic organizations, including New York and National Academy of Sciences, American Society of Cell Biologists, Genetics Society, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society, Dr.Edelman is also one of the few international members of the Academy of Sciences, Institute of France. In 1974 he became a Vincent Astor Distinguished Professor, serving on the board of governors of the Weizmann Institute of Science and is also a trustee of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

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