Bruce Merrifield

The Rockefeller University

July 15, 1921 - May 14, 2006

Scientific Discipline: Biochemistry
Membership Type:
Member (elected 1972)

Bruce Merrifield invented and then refined a chemical process called solid-phase protein synthesis (SPPS), in which amino acids are added linearly, one-by-one, through a repetitive sequence of additive and subtractive “washes” to build a desired peptide or protein. This new process transformed biochemical research and the pharmaceutical industry, in part because it enabled automation of protein synthesis, but also because it was far more efficient than any process with similar aims had been before: it worked faster, required fewer people in the laboratory, and yielded much higher amounts of the final product.

Merrifield studied chemistry as an undergraduate and graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles. He earned his PhD in 1949 and then moved to New York City to begin a postdoctoral position at what was then the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, now called Rockefeller University. Merrifield became a professor at Rockefeller University in 1966.

He first published the process for SPPS in the early 1960s and then refined each step of it until the final yield was greater than 99 percent. Using this refined version of SPPS, Merrifield was able to build peptides such as the pancreatic hormone glucagon; the stomach hormone gastrin; the antibacterial peptide cecropin, found in insects; the bee venom toxin melittin and its hybrids; and immunoglobulin fragments.

Merrifield remained at Rockefeller University as a professor until his retirement in 1992. He received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1984, as well as the Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, the Gairdner International Award, the American Chemical Society Award for Creative Work in Synthetic Organic Chemistry, the American Peptide Society Alan E. Pierce Award, and the European Peptide Society Josef Rudinger Memorial Lecture Award. He was elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1972.

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