This chapter comprises a detailed case history on the emergence of what was to become a model of a molecular “pump,” the photoactive protein bacteriorhodopsin. The surge of research on this brand-new research object is part of the early 1970s’ “membrane moment,” which rapidly transformed the field. The unfolding of research at the University of San Francisco, the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry, and Cambridge’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology shows a coalescence of concepts and methods from enzymology, organic chemistry, physiology, and structural biology around the concrete materialization of a membrane and its active protein. Thereby, this chapter provides a history of active matter avant la lettre, highlighting the field’s manifold connections to chemistry. Laboratory notebooks reveal transformative steps and the impact of materiality on this research project from an analysis of membrane structures to the study of an exemplary molecular machine. This chapter provides insight into the work style and topics of a novel, influential generation of molecular biologists, which changed the scope of these sciences, and it can be read as an element in a prehistory of optogenetics, a current approach that makes use of such molecular machinery to modify neuronal activity.
Keywords: cryo-electron microscopy, bioenergetics, Richard Henderson, laboratory notebooks, Dieter Oesterhelt, Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry, Laboratory of Molecular Biology Cambridge, rhodopsin, pump, 1970s
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