Miescher isolated various phosphate-rich chemicals, which he called nuclein (now nucleic acids), from the nuclei of white blood cells in 1869 in Felix Hoppe-Seyler's laboratory at the University of Tübingen, Germany, paving the way for the identification of DNA as the carrier of inheritance. The significance of the discovery, first published in 1871, was not at first apparent, and it was Albrecht Kossel who made the initial inquiries into its chemical structure. Later, Friedrich Miescher raised the idea that the nucleic acids could be involved in heredity.
Miescher came from a scientific family: his father and his uncle held the chair of anatomy at the University of Basel. As a boy he was shy but intelligent. He had an interest in music, and his father performed publicly. Miescher studied medicine at Basel. In the summer of 1865 Friedrich worked for the organic chemist Adolf Stecker in Göttingen, but his studies were interrupted for the year when he became ill with typhoid fever, which left him hearing-impaired. However, he still received his MD in 1868.
Miescher felt that his partial deafness would be a disadvantage as a doctor, so he turned to physiological chemistry. He originally wanted to study lymphocytes but was encouraged by Felix Hoppe-Seyler to study leucocytes. He was interested in studying the chemistry of the nucleus. Lymphocytes were difficult to obtain in sufficient numbers to study, while leucocytes were known to be one of the main components in pus and could be obtained from bandages at the nearby hospital. The problem was, however, washing the cells off the bandages without damaging them.
Miescher devised different salt solutions, eventually producing one with sodium sulfate. The cells were filtered. Since centrifuges were not available at the time, the cells were allowed to settle to the bottom of a beaker. He then tried to isolate the nuclei free of cytoplasm. He subjected the purified nuclei to an alkaline extraction followed by acidification, resulting in the formation of a precipitate that Miescher called nuclein (now known as DNA). He found that this contained phosphorus and nitrogen, but not sulfur. The discovery was so unlike anything else at the time that Hoppe-Seyler repeated all Miescher's research himself before publishing it in his journal. Miescher then went on to study physiology at Leipzig in the laboratory of Carl Ludwig for a year before being appointed professor of physiology.
Miescher and his students researched much nucleic acid chemistry, but its function remained unknown. However, his discovery played an important part in the identification of nucleic acids as the carriers of inheritance. The importance of Miescher's discovery was not apparent until Albrecht Kossel (a German physiologist specializing in the physiological chemistry of the cell and its nucleus and of proteins) carried out research on the chemical structure of nuclein. Friedrich Miescher is also known for demonstrating that carbon dioxide concentrations in blood regulate breathing.
^Miescher, Friedrich (1871) "Ueber die chemische Zusammensetzung der Eiterzellen" (On the chemical composition of pus cells), Medicinisch-chemische Untersuchungen, 4 : 441–460. From p. 456:"Ich habe mich daher später mit meinen Versuchen an die ganzen Kerne gehalten, die Trennung der Körper, die ich einstweilen ohne weiteres Präjudiz als lösliches und unlösliches Nuclein bezeichnen will, einem günstigeren Material überlassend." (Therefore, in my experiments I subsequently limited myself to the whole nucleus, leaving to a more favorable material the separation of the substances, that for the present, without further prejudice, I will designate as soluble and insoluble nuclear material ("Nuclein").)
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