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Calf and Pea Histone IV. III. Complete Amino Acid Sequence of Pea Seedling Histone IV; Comparison with the Homologous Calf Thymus Histone (DeLange, R. J., Fambrough, D. M., Smith, E. L., and Bonner, J. J. (1969)J. Biol. Chem.244,5669–5679)
James Frederick Bonner (1910–1996) was born in Ansley, NE to a family of chemists. Bonner's father, Walter Daniel Bonner, became head of the chemistry department at the University of Utah when James was 5 years old, and his mother and paternal grandfather were chemists as well. Bonner also had five brothers and one sister, all of whom received doctoral degrees: four of them became biochemists, two became physical chemists, and one became an applied mathematician and computer specialist. As such, Bonner naturally gravitated toward chemistry, and after graduating from high school in 1927, he entered the University of Utah to major in chemistry. After Bonner's sophomore year, his father took a sabbatical year at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and moved the family to California. Because Bonner had a tuition scholarship, he was able to take classes at Caltech and studied physical chemistry and biology. After the year was up, Bonner's family moved back to Utah, but Bonner remained at Caltech for the summer, studying fruit fly genetics with Theodosius Dobzhansky. At the end of the summer Bonner returned to Utah to finish his bachelor's degree.
After graduating in 1931, Bonner returned to Caltech for graduate school and worked on the production of auxin by the fungus Rhizopus. He discovered that the addition of Bacto-peptone increased auxin production 100- to 200-fold. Bonner also developed the section growth test for auxin in which sections of oat coleoptiles were floated in auxin solutions and their growth was monitored. He graduated in 1934 with a Ph.D. in biology. Bonner then received a fellowship to support a postdoctoral year in Europe. He chose to study in Utrecht with Hugo R. Kruyt, one of the most famous colloid chemists of the time. In early 1935, Bonner moved to Zürich to work in Albert Frey-Wyssling's laboratory. There he used the polarizing microscope to study cell wall properties and showed that auxin made the cell wall microfibrils slide past each other more easily.
Upon returning home at the end of 1935, Bonner was offered a position as research fellow at Caltech. He advanced to instructor in 1936, assistant professor in 1937, associate professor in 1943, professor in 1946, and finally he became emeritus in 1981. Bonner's research at Caltech began with studies of wound hormones. He then moved on to plant hormones and discovered that vitamin B1 (thiamine) was important for root growth in tomato plants. He also determined that other roots required thiamine as well as niacin for growth and that the B vitamins were synthesized in the leaves and transported to the roots.
In 1938 Bonner spent a summer at the University of Chicago working with Karl Hamner on photoperiodism. They discovered that the length of the night, rather than the day, was most important in producing flowering in plants. During World War II, Bonner and Frits Went decided to become specialists in rubber production, and they started intensive research on the guayule plant, the one plant in the western world that was a serious rubber producer. Bonner and Went studied the nutrient requirements of guayule plants and how to kill yield-reducing pests. Bonner was appointed a special agent of the U. S. Forest Service assigned to the Emergency Rubber Program. He eventually entered into a long term association with the Rubber Research Institute of Malaysia and developed a technique for adding ethylene to the bark of rubber trees, which increased latex production by the trees and essentially doubled the world's rubber production.
With the end of the War, Bonner turned his focus to cell biology and the isolation of chloroplasts, mitochondria, cytoplasm, and enzymes. This eventually led to his investigation of how chromosomes control cellular metabolism. Along with his postdoctoral fellow Ru-Chih C. Huang, Bonner isolated chromatin from the nuclei of pea epicotyls. They discovered that crude nuclear extract would incorporate 14C-labeled nucleoside triphosphates into something that was soluble in trichloroacetic acid. Further investigation showed that the purified enzyme could incorporate all four riboside triphosphates into RNA and that RNA synthesis depended on the presence of DNA in the reaction mixture. Bonner and Huang also found that RNA transcription worked much better when DNA was stripped of its histones.
With this discovery, the Bonner lab started investigating histones. Bonner sent his graduate student Douglas Fambrough to Kenneth Murray at Stanford University to learn how to isolate histones using amberlite CG-50 chromatography and polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis. Using these techniques they discovered that there were only five different species of histones. When they compared histones III from pea plants and calf thymus they found that the two proteins had similar amino acid compositions except for one cysteine in pea compared to two cysteines in calf histone.
At the 1967 annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D. C., Bonner approached Emil Smith, who was featured in a previous Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC) Classic (
), and asked him if he would be interested in comparing the sequences of histones from peas and calf thymus. Smith and Bonner's work on histones is reported in the JBC Classic reprinted here. The pair decided to begin their analysis with calf thymus and pea seedling histone H4 because H4 was the smallest of the histones and therefore the easiest to separate from the others. Smith needed 2 g of each protein for the analysis. This was easily done for the calf histone, which was collected from thymuses from slaughter houses, but it took 24 tons of dried pea seeds to obtain the 2 g of pure pea histone. The effort took a full year, but the results were worth it. Smith's analysis showed that cow and pea histones differ in only two residues and that these substitutions are conservative. This discovery was extremely significant because it implied that the amino acid sequence of histone H4 was so essential it had been conserved since the divergence of animals and plants.
In recognition of his contributions to science, Bonner was elected to the National Academies of Sciences in 1950 and was President of the Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1965. In addition to being involved in scientific research, Bonner was an active member of the National Ski Patrol, was elected to the American Alpine Club in 1949, traveled over much of the world, and climbed mountains in the Himalayas, Nepal, and many other places.