Two years into a degree in chemical engineering Oliver Lowry’s change to a biochemistry major was a serendipitous move following a conversation with a medical student, who convinced him that “so little was known about biochemistry that anything (he) found out would be new”1.
He then went on to earn dual degrees in physiological chemistry and medicine from the University of Chicago, before devoting the rest of his research career to the study of micro methods.
In the protein world Lowry is known for developing a sensitive method for the measurement of the amount of total protein in a solution. His article “Protein Measurement with the Folin Phenol Reagent”, is still credited with being the most highly cited scientific paper2, with an astonishing 305,148 citations. Yet he had to be pushed to publish this, originally happy just to share his method with colleagues, and said himself “Although I really know it is not a great paper?…?I secretly get a kick out of the response”.
Lowry based his assay on the ‘phenol reagent’ developed by Otto Knut Olof Folin and Vintila Ciocalteu (now referred to as the Folin-Ciocalteu reagent). He determined that the reagent could bind to copper-treated proteins. The bound reagent then became reduced, resulting in a colour change from yellow to blue. This colour change can then be measured using a spectrophotometer to ascertain the protein concentration. The Lowry method allows biochemists to easily and reliably quantify protein concentrations with less bias from the amino acid composition of the protein (although the reaction is still partly dependent on polar amino acids).
The Lowry protein assay was not his only success, he developed a host of microanalytical methods including assays for:
- Measuring ketone bodies in 1ml blood
- Measuring electrolytes in mg tissue sample
- Measuring collagen and elastin
- Screening vitamin deficiencies in children using small amounts of blood
- Quantitative histochemistry
And because there wasn’t a balance sensitive enough for his assays he invented his own, which was capable of measuring less than one millionth of a gram.
But what I like best about Lowry is the title of his autobiographical article “How to succeed in research without being a genius”, because if he managed all that without being a genius, there’s hope for the rest of us yet.
1.Lowry, OH. How to succeed in research without being a genius Annu.Rev.Biochem.59:1-27. (1990)
2.Lowry, OH Rosebrough, NJ Farr AL and Randall RJ. J. Biol. Ch