Interview with Prof Peter Rich: ‘What would Peter Mitchell say?’

28 Jun 2016

On 9 March 2016, Prof Peter Rich gave a lecture on the topic of his predecessor, Dr Peter Mitchell, and his revolutionary chemiosmotic theory at New York University in London. This lecture, part of the London Group Spring 2016 Lecture Series, commemorated the 50th anniversary of the publication of Dr Mitchell’s Grey Books, the privately published summaries of this theory. Today, Dr Mitchell’s legacy lives on at the Glynn Laboratory of Bioenergetics at the University College London (UCL), run by Prof Rich, who joined the Glynn laboratory when it was still an independent research institution at Glynn House in Cornwall.

Apart from science, Dr Mitchell also ran his own dairy farm and minted his own silver coins; he was a well-rounded person. Were these skills integrated in the life and science at Glynn?
I think that for most very successful scientists I know, science and life generally are completely integrated. This doesn't mean that people are obsessively doing science all the time, but people’s characters go into the way they do the science.

Who were some of Dr Mitchell’s most important influences?
That’s quite a controversial question; whole books have been written about it. What would Peter Mitchell say? One of the great influences was a man called David Keilin. Actually, PM was considered to be quite arrogant as a student, but David Keilin took him on, and that’s where he got set up with his lifelong experimental collaborator, Jennifer Moyle. I would say that the influences around him in Cambridge (Keilin, Danielli) were probably the most important.

Some say Dr Mitchell was very firm in his opinions about his theory, and did not like others suggesting amendments (e.g. Mårten Wikström’s cytochrome oxidase as a proton pump). Was it sometimes difficult discussing findings from other labs with him?
From my personal experience, not at all. If you take the particular example with Mårten Wikström, Peter Mitchell eventually admitted that he [himself] was responsible for holding up the field of cytochrome oxidase research more than anybody else, by not accepting the theory. A major reason initially that he couldn't accept that cytochrome oxidase was pumping additional protons across the membrane was because he couldn’t devise an abstract mechanism based on his chemiosmotic principles in which electon and proton transfers are directly linked to each other.

What do you believe is the most important legacy of Peter Mitchell? What should the younger generation take away from his research and role in establishing this field?
Well, of course the legacy is the chemiosmotic theory, and this way of thinking. If you want to do something that is at the edge between chemistry, physics and biology, you have to be completely comfortable with all of the basics. You have to fully understand them, not just as a student being able to write down the equations, but recognizing where they come from and what they mean. Once you are comfortable with all those things, you can then manipulate them as you want to produce some new kind of synthesis. I think [Mitchell] was a fantastic example of that.

Are today’s institutions, e.g. UCL, doing a good job at equipping students with a rigid understanding of these basics?
I think it is much harder now. I mean, science is so detailed and complicated. Take the biological sciences, for example; each area has got so much information now. I sympathize with students, as it is very hard to get your head around all this detail. I think UCL is doing a great job at its teaching, but there is so much information to absorb. This is also a problem when running a research group. When I first went to Glynn (...) I had time to devote one day every week to reading and thinking. That’s almost impossible in universities today.

Could you describe some of the research you are currently working on?
In basic science, we are still trying to understand the fundamental mechanism of electron and proton movements in cytochrome oxidase (...) in terms of its atomic structure and reaction cycle, and the ways in which these processes can be controlled within cells. From a technical point of view, most of my lab is geared up for spectroscopy, in particular mid-infrared vibrational spectroscopy. With this we can follow, for example, how protons move on and off amino acids. In the other half of my lab, we use this advanced technology for more translational medical applications. It is possible with it to measure various biochemicals in biological fluids or in the surface layer of, or in thin sections of, tissues. This information can potentially reveal certain disease states. In one project, we have taken vibrational spectra of biopsy samples from the cancer clinic before they are passed on to the histologists for clinical grading. From our studies to date, we have found a promising correlation between results from the histological grading and those obtained with the much more rapid spectroscopic method. Hence, this type of technology may produce novel future diagnostic methods.

Listen to the entire interview here:

Interviewers: Niyousha Ahmadi and Lindsey Pappalardo, New York University; Leonore Wünsche, NYU Abu Dhabi

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