Field of Science

Ivano Bertini

Bertini with Harry Gray at Caltech (Image: NSMB)
I thought I should take note of the unfortunate fact that Ivano Bertini has passed away. I first heard of him when I came across the famous textbook on bioinorganic chemistry which he co-authored with Gray, Stiefel and Valentine. I think it's still the best introduction to the subject. After laying out the basic properties and abundances of inorganic ions in biology and the environment, it goes on to describe in careful detail the role of major metalloproteins in key biological processes. Each of these proteins is depicted as an elegant molecular machine performing metal-catalyzed room-temperature reactions with an efficiency that we chemists can only dream of accomplishing.

Bertini made very important contributions to the NMR structure elucidation of metalloproteins and solved more than 150 structures during a distinguished career that was cut short, an unprecedented record. Before his work, NMR of paramagnetic proteins was thought to be exceedingly difficult because of paramagnetic relaxation; this is the same reason why oxygen in an NMR sample precludes the acquisition of good data for NOE experiments, requiring the sample to be purged with nitrogen. 

An obituary in Nature Chemical Biology (paywall) gives a good sense of both the man and his characteristically bold approach to science:

One could not avoid knowing Ivano: he was 'loud' in all senses. In a room full of people, his booming voice would always tell if he was around. He was also tall and large and would speak loudly to the heart of any new acquaintance, making himself unforgettable. He also had a loud love for science. In his office, he had a banner that said, “La scienza รจ come l'amore: non puoi non pensarci sempre” (Science is like love: you can't help thinking about it all the time)...
The story of the first solution structure of a paramagnetic protein is a typical example of Ivano's response to scientific challenges. In the early nineties, about ten years after the first protein NMR structure, it was implicit that paramagnetic relaxation prevented NMR analysis of paramagnetic proteins. 
On a midsummer Sunday at Ivano's country house, however, we were reading a recent review article by a well-known NMR spectroscopist that explicitly stated it would never be possible to solve NMR structures of paramagnetic proteins. Ivano said, “Do you believe it?” We said, “No.” He then said, “This is a project that will need the whole lab.” The next day, we were all at work; the paper was published 14 months later. With that work, a taboo had been broken, and many structures of paramagnetic proteins have been solved since then.

Metalloproteins continue to be of intense interest in chemistry, biology and medicine and we will all continue to benefit from Bertini's legacy.

1 comment:

  1. It's a tremendous loss for the scientific community. I actually first encountered his work as an undergraduate since my then-lab had a collaboration with the folks at CERM, and found his countless reviews - and his excellent text on solution NMR of paramagnetic proteins with Claudio Luchinat and Giacomo Parigi - to be of indescribable value as a graduate student. In more recent years, he and his colleagues were starting to do some really impressive work on solids NMR of paramagnetic proteins with the solid state NMR groups in Lyon, France.

    He will be missed.


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