Purple Matter, Membranes and 'Molecular Pumps' in Rhodopsin Research (1960s–1980s)

Journal of the History of Biology 46 (3):331-368 (2013)
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In the context of 1960s research on biological membranes, scientists stumbled upon a curiously coloured material substance, which became called the “purple membrane.” Interactions with the material as well as chemical analyses led to the conclusion that the microbial membrane contained a photoactive molecule similar to rhodopsin, the light receptor of animals’ retinae. Until 1975, the find led to the formation of novel objects in science, and subsequently to the development of a field in the molecular life sciences that comprised biophysics, bioenergetics as well as membrane and structural biology. Furthermore, the purple membrane and bacteriorhodopsin, as the photoactive membrane transport protein was baptized, inspired attempts at hybrid bio-optical engineering throughout the 1980s. A central motif of the research field was the identification of a functional biological structure, such as a membrane, with a reactive material substance that could be easily prepared and manipulated. Building on this premise, early purple membrane research will be taken as a case in point to understand the appearance and transformation of objects in science through work with material substances. Here, the role played by a perceptible material and its spontaneous change of colour, or reactivity, casts a different light on objects and experimental practices in the late twentieth century molecular life sciences. With respect to the impact of chemical working and thinking, the purple membrane and rhodopsins represent an influential domain straddling the life and chemical sciences as well as bio- and material technologies, which has received only little historical and philosophical attention. Re-drawing the boundary between the living and the non-enlivened, these researches explain and model organismic activity through the reactivity of macromolecular structures, and thus palpable material substances



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