A Source Book in Chemistry, 1900-1950

Author: John Howard Northrop  | Date: 1930

John Howard Northrop Chemistry

The following selection is from pages 739–743, 745, and 763–764 in The Journal of General Physiology 13, 739–766 (1930).

Crystalline Pepsin. I. Isolation and Tests of Purity


I Introduction

Enzymes are in many respects connecting links between living and inanimate matter since their action is analogous to inorganic catalysts, although the enzymes themselves are found only in living organisms. As catalysts they increase the rate of one or more specific reactions and so act as directive agents for the reactions occurring in the organism. This directive property is undoubtedly essential for the existence of living cells. As a consequence of these properties the study of enzymes has been of interest to both chemists and biologists and has resulted in a great increase in the knowledge of their mode of action. The results of attempts to isolate the enzymes in pure form, however, have been singularly unsuccessful. There seems to be no convincing evidence that any enzyme has been obtained in the pure state; and only one, the urease described by Sumner, has been previously obtained in crystalline form. A number of methods have been found which allow the activity of an enzyme preparation to be increased almost indefinitely; at the same time, however, the preparation becomes more unstable and eventually the activity becomes lost.

In practically all the work the assumption has been made either explicitly or otherwise that the activity was a measure of the purity of the preparation and that any increase in activity was due to an increase in purity. This is not necessarily true. If the enzymes are analogous to inorganic catalysts then it is quite possible that the activity depends on the physical arrangement of the molecules or atoms. Evidence for this relation between the physical state and the activity was found by Fodor in the case of the proteolytic enzymes of yeast, and by Kuhn and Wasserman in the case of hemin. It is possible, on the other hand, that enzymes in general are of the type of hemoglobin (which might be considered an enzyme), and that they consist of an active group combined with an inert group. It might be possible under certain conditions to attach many more active groups to the inert group and so increase the activity above that of the original compound. Either of the above ideas would account for the well-known fact that crude preparations are much more stable than purified material and that the rate of inactivation of enzyme solutions practically always shows evidence of a mixture of stable and unstable forms.

There is some reason to think, therefore, that enzymes exist in a more stable form for either physical or chemical reasons, and in view of the uniformly negative results which have been obtained in attempting to isolate the most active preparations it seemed advisable in attempting the isolation of pepsin to study the more stable as well as the most active fraction.

II Preliminary Experiments

A number of methods have been proposed for the purification of pepsin, such as precipitation with safranin, etc., fractionation by various adsorbents, and precipitation by dialysis from acid solution (Peckelharing). These and a number of other methods were tried and more or less active preparations obtained. The results with Peckel-haring’s method seemed the most encouraging, however, since the loss of activity was less and there was some indication that a constant activity was reached. This result has been reported by Peckelharing and also by Fenger, Andrew and Ralston using a similar method. It was found, however, that the dialysis could be dispensed with and the process made more rapid and efficient by solution with alkali and subsequent precipitation with acid, after a preliminary precipitation with half-saturated

The amorphous material so obtained contains about half the activity present in the original material and is 3 to 6 times as active as measured by the liquefaction of gelatin and about 5 times as active as measured by the digestion of casein or by the rennet action on milk. Repetition of this procedure gave products of increasing activity as measured by the liquefaction of gelatin, and apparently this activity could be increased indefinitely. Several samples were obtained which were 100 times as active as the original preparation. They were also more unstable, so that each succeeding precipitation was accompanied by a larger and larger percentage loss until finally no more active material remained. This has been the fate of all previous attempts to isolate the most active fraction of a number of enzymes. When the activity of the various fractions was determined by the rate of hydrolysis of casein or by the rennet action on milk, however, it was found that the activity increased until it reached about 5 times that of the crude preparation and then remained constant instead of increasing as did the gelatin-liquefying power. This was the result reported by Peckelharing and also by Fenger, Andrew and Ralston. This material appeared to be protein, as previous workers had found, and was reasonably stable. Efforts were therefore made to isolate this protein in crystalline form.

III Isolation of the Crystalline Enzyme

It was noticed that the precipitate which formed in the dialyzing sac when the procedure of Peckelharing was followed appeared in more or less granular form and filtered rather easily, as though it were on the verge of crystallization. This precipitate dissolved on warming the suspension and it was eventually found that it could be induced to crystallize by warming to 45° C., filtering, and allowing the filtrate to cool slowly. The crystals so obtained were regular hexahedra and showed a tendency to grow in clusters, especially when appearing from more acid solutions. They are remarkably similar to the urease crystals pictured by Sumner and differ only in that they have a hexagonal base while the urease has an octagonal base. On one occasion a few crystals with truncated pyramids were obtained. They had the same activity and optical activity as the usual form. The crystals showed positive double refraction and were optically active in solution. They possessed proteolytic activity, when dissolved, equivalent to 5 times that of the U.S.P. 1 to 10,000 pepsin as measured by hydrolysis of casein, and 2.5 times as measured by the liquefaction of gelatin [see Fig. 1].

Improved Method for the Preparation of the Crystals. The isolation of the crystals in bulk by the above method was difficult owing to the dialysis. It was found that this could be avoided and the purification

Fig. 1. Crystalline pepsin.

carried out as outlined above for the amorphous preparations except that the acid precipitate was dissolved at 45° C. in concentrated solution. On inoculation, this solution set to a solid paste of crystals.

A detailed description of the preparation of the crystals is given in tabular form at this point.

IV General Properties and Analysis of the Crystals

The material prepared in this way has the general properties of a protein. It is coagulated by heat, precipitated by saturation of the solution with

and gives a strongly positive xanthoproteic test. The Millon test is negative. The crude material contains a large amount of yellowish pigment which is removed with difficulty. It may be largely removed by reprecipitation with
and becomes less as the material is recrystallized. All the preparations, however, give a slightly yellowish solution when dissolved although the dry crystals are pure white after several crystallizations. There is no relation between the activity and the color. Analysis of the material gave the results shown in Table II [not included here].

The crystals are difficult to dissolve after drying and are best kept under saturated

at 5° C. They are instantly inactivated by alkali in solution and lose activity slowly in acid solutions. The inactivated material is digested by the remaining active material and a large amount of tyrosine crystallizes out. This process also occurs slowly in the ice box so that the crystals on standing become mixed with nonprotein material that is not precipitated by salt nor by heat. The crystals can be freed from this soluble material by thorough washing with
or by recrystallization. When freshly prepared in this way 98 to 99 per cent of the nitrogen is precipitated from solution by heating rapidly to boiling at pH 3 with sulfuric acid and
by saturation with
by the addition of alkali and subsequent neutralization, or by heating with 10 per cent trichloracetic acid.

Evidence is given for constant activity of various preparations, and for constant activity and composition on repeated crystallization. The paper concludes as follows.

VI Conclusions as to the Purity of the Preparation

The preceding experiments have shown that no evidence for the existence of a mixture of active and inactive material in the crystals could be obtained by recrystallization, solubility determinations in a series of solvents, inactivation by either heat or alkali, or by the rate of diffusion. It is reasonable to conclude therefore that the material is either a pure substance or a solid solution of two very closely related substances. If it is a solid solution of two or more substances it must be further assumed that these substances have about the same degree of solubility in the various solvents used, as well as the same diffusion coefficient and rate of inactivation or denaturization by heat. It must also be assumed that both substances are changed by alkali at the same rate and to the same extent. This could hardly be true with the possible exception of two closely related proteins. It is conceivable that two proteins might be indistinguishable by any of the tests applied in this work. But in this case it would follow that the enzyme itself was a protein and this, after all, is the main point. It does not necessarily follow even if the material represents the pure enzyme that it is the most active preparation that can be obtained nor that it is the only compound which has proteolytic activity. There is some evidence that the activity of the preparation may depend on its physical state as is known to be the case with the catalytic activity of colloidal metals. It is possible, on the other hand, that hemoglobin is the type structure for the enzymes and that they consist of an active group combined with a protein as suggested by Peckelharing. The active group may be too unstable to exist alone, but it is quite conceivable that a series of compounds may exist containing varying numbers of active groups combined with the protein, and that the activity of the compound would depend on the number of these active groups. This hypothetical complex would not differ much from that assumed by Willstätter and his co-workers, except that it supposes a definite chemical compound with the protective group in place of an adsorption complex. It is of course possible that both types of complex may be formed under suitable conditions. The reactivation of enzymes as reported in the literature also suggests their protein nature since the conditions for this reactivation are similar to those found by Anson and Mirsky to be suitable for the formation of native from denatured protein. The fact that the crystalline urease prepared by Sumner is also a protein and that the temperature coefficient for the rate of inactivation of enzymes in general is that characteristic for the denaturization of proteins, suggests that the protein fraction in the purification of enzymes be given special attention even though it may not be the most active fraction.

The crystalline pepsin resembles the amorphous preparations obtained previously by Peckelharing, Ringer, Fenger, Andrew and Ralston and other workers. It is probable that the preparations obtained by these workers were nearly pure pepsin. Both Peckelharing and Ringer obtained preparations free from phosphorus so that there may be several proteolytically active forms.

Peckelharing showed that the same protein material could be obtained from gastric juice as from autolyzed gastric mucosa so that it is probable that the crystalline material could also be readily prepared from gastric juice. It seems fair to conclude therefore that the crystalline protein described in this paper is identical with the enzyme pepsin as secreted by the animal.


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Chicago: John Howard Northrop, "Crystalline Pepsin. I. Isolation and Tests of Purity," A Source Book in Chemistry, 1900-1950 in A Source Book in Chemistry, 1900-1950, ed. Henry M. Leicester (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), 327–333. Original Sources, accessed June 4, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=HNUFJQIUL15APGC.

MLA: Northrop, John Howard. "Crystalline Pepsin. I. Isolation and Tests of Purity." A Source Book in Chemistry, 1900-1950, in A Source Book in Chemistry, 1900-1950, edited by Henry M. Leicester, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1968, pp. 327–333. Original Sources. 4 Jun. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=HNUFJQIUL15APGC.

Harvard: Northrop, JH, 'Crystalline Pepsin. I. Isolation and Tests of Purity' in A Source Book in Chemistry, 1900-1950. cited in 1968, A Source Book in Chemistry, 1900-1950, ed. , Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp.327–333. Original Sources, retrieved 4 June 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=HNUFJQIUL15APGC.