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New Beer in an Old Bottle (review)

This page contains a review of New Beer in an Old Bottle: Eduard Buchner and the Growth of Biochemical Knowledge by David Fell published in The Biochemist 22, 46 (2000)

The centenary of Buchner’s discovery that alcoholic fermentation could be demonstrated in cell-free yeast extracts was not widely marked, though the experiment is justly regarded as the the point where biochemistry became a distinct feld of enquiry. Perhaps it was difficult to kindl excitement about something apparently so remote from modern concerns. Yet the 18 authors who cooperated to produce this book thought otherwise, and collectively they have succeeded in showing with this fascinating and thought-provoking book that it is indeed well worth considering what we have (and maybe have not) learnt from Buchner. The strength of the book is that the three sections [Buchner’s original article (in facsimile and English and Spanish translations), the historical context, and current understanding of the properties of multienzyme systems] complement one another surprisingly well given that the contributions seem to have been largely independently produced.

But what, you may wonder, could be of interest in examining the events so far back that the sum total of biochemical knowledge wouldn’t make a chapter in a modern biochemistry book? For me, one reason was because this is not a triumphalist account of uniform progress towards the truth as heroic scientists dispel ignorance and superstition. The evidence presented suggests that the arguments about the nature of fermentation before and at the time of Buchner’s report influenced not only the subseqent successes in the development of metabolic biochemistry but also the failure for most of the next hundred to come to terms with the problems in understanding multienzyme systems recounted in the last section of the book. Although in some key respects the historical views offered by Fritz Schlenk and Herbert Friedmann differ, it is clear that both regard Buchner’s experiment as catalysing the triumph of the reductionist,nothing but chemistry approach to metabolism over holistic, even mystical, vitalist opinions. In this way, biochemistry was launched on its inexorable reductionist path and, arguably, attempts to develop more systemic approaches have suffered from a perceived association with the discredited vitalism. Yet as Robert Scopes implies in an excellent article on glycolysis in cell-free systems, biochemists today would struggle to interpret correctly the observations made by first Buchner and then Harden and Young, in spite of our current encyclopaedic knowledge of the components of the pathway. This is underlined by the following articles in the rest of the final section, which demonstrate that knowing the components of a system is only a first step to an understanding of system behaviour that can still elude us even today.

And the other reason I liked this book? — its marvellously subversive message that great scientists who have made their name in one field can be accorded too much respect for their opinions on topics where they have less experience and evidence. Of course, that couldn’t possibly be true today, could it?

In my view, all biochemists, from students to seasoned practitioners, could benefit from reading this book. In the context of a topic — glycolysis — that is well known to all, it provides material for case studies and reflection on a number of aspects, including the interplay between ideas and experiment, and less comfortably, between scientific authority figures and their less renowned colleagues.