The Coris Biography


Carl and Gerty Cori were both born in Prague, Austria-Hungary (now the CzechRepublic) in 1896. They entered the University of Prague's medical school atroughly the same time, each planning to become a physician. At some point during their student days, they met each other, fell in love, and teamed up to share laboratory research in biochemistry. They decided that they not only enjoyed working together but also preferred biochemical research to medical practice. But in 1920, after they married and obtained their medical degrees, only Carl was able to find a research position. It was in Vienna, Austria, and Gerty joined the staff of a hospital there, but they still longed to work together. In 1922, when Carl was offered a position as a biochemist at the New York Institute for the Study of Malignant Diseases in Buffalo, New York, he immigrated to the United States. Gerty followed him a few months later when a job opened up for her in the same institution.

At the New York Institute, the Coris did some research on the metabolism of abnormal growths but spent most of their time investigating the way normal healthy bodies utilize sugars and starches. The research team was particularly intrigued by two hormones--epinephrine and the recently discovered insulin--and their roles in carbohydrate metabolism.

In a series of papers published during the 1920s, the Coris provided the scientific world with a great deal of information about what happened to sugars after they were absorbed by experimental white rats. Among other things, theyreported, normally about half the absorbed sugar (now called glucose) is converted to glycogen and stored in this form in the liver and muscles, with therest either stored as fat or burned as fuel. The administration of insulin, however, not only decreases the amount of sugar stored in the liver, but increases its utilization elsewhere.

In 1932, the two scientists joined the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where they were able to probe even more deeply into the mysteries of carbohydrate metabolism. The work of another biochemist, Otto Meyerhof, had already established the fact that, when muscles contract, the glycogen stored in them is somehow converted to lactic acid. The Coris wanted to find out exactly how the glycogen is broken down and how, after its conversionto lactic acid, it is then resynthesized into glucose. In their new laboratory, they were able to find the answers.

Using minced frog muscles to help them in their investigations, the Coris were soon able to isolate and identify a sugar and phosphate compound, previously unknown, which they named glucose-1-phosphate (often called Cori ester in their honor.) This discovery, plus their discovery of two new enzymes, helpedthem disprove a widely held belief--that the highly branched glycogen molecule breaks itself down to glucose molecules by adding water molecules at each of its many links. Although this breakdown process seemed simple and logical,the Coris pointed out it would also lead to a pronounced energy loss that would have impaired the eventual resynthesis. Instead of using water, glycogen--helped by one of the enzymes they discovered--adds inorganic phosphate at each of its links to form the newly-discovered phosphate-containing compound (which involved less energy loss) and then undergoes a long series of chemical changes before it is finally broken down. The Coris patiently detailed each ofthe changes and then went on to outline the resynthesis process--in time, actually managing to synthesize the glycogen in a test tube.

For their work on glycogen, the Coris shared--with the Argentinean Bernardo Houssay (1887-1971)--the 1947 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. Gerty Cori was the third woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize in a scientific field. Theother two were Marie Curie and her daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie. Otherhonors the couple shared included membership in the American Society of Biological Chemists, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Chemical Society, and the American Philosophical Society. They were joint recipients of the Midwest Award of the American Chemical Society in 1946 and the Squibb Awardin Endocrinology in 1947.

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