Gerald Edelman

Gerald Edelman

Gerald M. Edelman in 2010.
Born Gerald Maurice Edelman
(1929-07-01)July 1, 1929
Ozone Park, Queens, New York
Died May 17, 2014(2014-05-17) (aged 84)
La Jolla, California
Nationality American
Fields Immunology
Philosophy of Mind
Alma mater Ursinus College, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, The Rockefeller University
Notable awards Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972
Spouse Maxine M. Morrison (m. 1950; 3 children)

Gerald Maurice Edelman (July 1, 1929 – May 17, 2014) was an American biologist who shared the 1972 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for work with Rodney Robert Porter on the immune system.[1] Edelman's Nobel Prize-winning research concerned discovery of the structure of antibody molecules.[2] In interviews, he has said that the way the components of the immune system evolve over the life of the individual is analogous to the way the components of the brain evolve in a lifetime. There is a continuity in this way between his work on the immune system, for which he won the Nobel Prize, and his later work in neuroscience and in philosophy of mind.

Early life

Gerald Edelman was born in 1929[3] in Ozone Park, Queens, New York, to Jewish parents, physician Edward Edelman, and Anna (née Freedman) Edelman, who worked in the insurance industry.[4] He studied violin for years, but eventually realized that he did not have the inner drive needed to pursue a career as a concert violinist, and decided to go into medical research instead.[5] After being raised in New York, he attended college in Pennsylvania where he graduated magna cum laude with a B.S. from Ursinus College in 1950 and received an M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1954.[4]


After a year at the Johnson Foundation for Medical Physics, Edelman became a resident at the Massachusetts General Hospital; he then practiced medicine in France while serving with US Army Medical Corps.[4] In 1957, Edelman joined the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research as a graduate fellow, working in the laboratory of Henry Kunkel and receiving a Ph.D. in 1960.[4] The institute made him the Assistant (later Associate) Dean of Graduate Studies; he became a professor at the school in 1966.[4] In 1992, he moved to California and became a professor of neurobiology at The Scripps Research Institute.[6]

After his Nobel prize award, Edelman began research into the regulation of primary cellular processes, particularly the control of cell growth and the development of multi-celled organisms, focussing on cell-to-cell interactions in early embryonic development and in the formation and function of the nervous system. These studies led to the discovery of cell adhesion molecules (CAMs), which guide the fundamental processes that help an animal achieve its shape and form, and by which nervous systems are built. One of the most significant discoveries made in this research is that the precursor gene for the neural cell adhesion molecule gave rise in evolution to the entire molecular system of adaptive immunity.[7]

Nobel Prize

While in Paris serving in the Army, Edelman read a book that sparked his interest in antibodies.[8] He decided that, since the book said so little about antibodies, he would investigate them further upon returning to the United States, which led him to study physical chemistry for his 1960 Ph.D.[8] Research by Edelman and his colleagues and Rodney Robert Porter in the early 1960s produced fundamental breakthroughs in the understanding of the antibody's chemical structure, opening a door for further study.[9] For this work, Edelman and Porter shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972.[1]

In its Nobel Prize press release in 1972, the Karolinska Institutet lauded Edelman and Porter's work as a major breakthrough:

"The impact of Edelman's and Porter's discoveries is explained by the fact that they provided a clear picture of the structure and mode of action of a group of biologically particularly important substances. By this they laid a firm foundation for truly rational research, something that was previously largely lacking in immunology. Their discoveries represent clearly a break-through that immediately incited a fervent research activity the whole world over, in all fields of immunological science, yielding results of practical value for clinical diagnostics and therapy.[10]

Disulfide bonds

Diagram illustrating the disulfide bonds (red) that link the light (green) and heavy (blue) protein subunits of Immunoglobulin G (IgG)molecules. This diagram also illustrates the relative positions of the variable (V) and constant (C) domains of an IgG molecule. The heavy and light chain variable regions come together to form antigen binding sites at the end of the two symmetrical arms of the antibody.

Edelman's early research on the structure of antibody proteins revealed that disulfide bonds link together the protein subunits.[2] The protein subunits of antibodies are of two types, the larger heavy chains and the smaller light chains. Two light and two heavy chains are linked together by disulfide bonds to form a functional antibody.

Molecular models of antibody structure

Using experimental data from his own research and the work of others, Edelman developed molecular models of antibody proteins.[11] A key feature of these models included the idea that the antigen binding domains of antibodies (Fab) include amino acids from both the light and heavy protein subunits. The inter-chain disulfide bonds help bring together the two parts of the antigen binding domain.

Antibody sequencing

Edelman and his colleagues used cyanogen bromide and proteases to fragment the antibody protein subunits into smaller pieces that could be analyzed for determination of their amino acid sequence.[12][13] At the time when the first complete antibody sequence was determined (1969)[14] it was the largest complete protein sequence that had ever been determined. The availability of amino acid sequences of antibody proteins allowed recognition of the fact that the body can produce many different antibody proteins with similar antibody constant regions and divergent antibody variable regions.


Topobiology is Edelman’s theory which asserts that morphogenesis is driven by differential adhesive interactions among heterogeneous cell populations and it explains how a single cell can give rise to a complex multi-cellular organism. As proposed by Edelman in 1988 topobiology is the process that sculpts and maintains differentiated tissues and is acquired by the energetically favored segregation of cells through heterologous cellular interactions.

Theory of consciousness

In his later career, Edelman was noted for his theory of consciousness, documented in a trilogy of technical books and in several subsequent books written for a general audience, including Bright Air, Brilliant Fire (1992), A Universe of Consciousness (2001, with Giulio Tononi), Wider than the Sky (2004) and Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge (2007).

In Second Nature Edelman defines human consciousness as:

"... what you lose on entering a dreamless deep sleep ... deep anesthesia or coma ... what you regain after emerging from these states. [The] experience of a unitary scene composed variably of sensory responses ... memories ... situatedness ... "

The first of Edelman's technical books, The Mindful Brain (1978),[15] develops his theory of Neural Darwinism, which is built around the idea of plasticity in the neural network in response to the environment. The second book, Topobiology (1988),[16] proposes a theory of how the original neuronal network of a newborn's brain is established during development of the embryo. The Remembered Present (1990)[17] contains an extended exposition of his theory of consciousness.

In his books, Edelman proposed a biological theory of consciousness, based on his studies of the immune system. He explicitly located his theory within Charles Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection, citing the key tenets of Darwin's population theory, which postulates that individual variation within species provides the basis for the natural selection that eventually leads to the evolution of new species.[18] He explicitly rejected dualism and also dismissed newer hypotheses such as the so-called 'computational' model of consciousness, which liken the brain's functions to the operations of a computer. Edelman argued that the mind and consciousness are purely biological phenomena, arising from complex cellular processes within the brain, and that the development of consciousness and intelligence can be explained by Darwinian theory.

Edelman's theory seeks to explain consciousness in terms of the morphology of the brain. A newborn baby's brain comprises a massive population of neurons (approx. 100 billion cells) and those that survive the initial phases of growth and development will make approximately 100 trillion connections with each other. A sample of brain tissue the size of a match head contains about a billion connections, and if we consider how these neuronal connections might be variously combined, the number of possible permutations becomes hyper-astronomical - in the order of ten followed by millions of zeros.[19] The young brain contains many more neurons than will ultimately survive to maturity, and Edelman argued that this redundant capacity is needed because neurons are the only cells in the body that cannot be renewed and because only those cells and networks best adapted to their ultimate purpose will be selected as they organize into neuronal groups.

Neural Darwinism

Edelman's theory of neuronal group selection, also known as Neural Darwinism, has three basic tenets—Developmental Selection, Experiential Selection and Reentry.

Evolution theory

Edelman and Gally were the first to point out the pervasiveness of degeneracy in biological systems and the fundamental role that degeneracy plays in facilitating evolution.[22]

Later career

Edelman founded and directed The Neurosciences Institute, a nonprofit research center in San Diego that between 1993 and 2012 studied the biological bases of higher brain function in humans. He served on the scientific board of the World Knowledge Dialogue project.[23]

Edelman was a member of the USA Science and Engineering Festival's Advisory Board.[24]


Edelman married Maxine M. Morrison in 1950.[4] They have two sons, Eric, a visual artist in New York City, and David, an adjunct professor of neuroscience at University of San Diego. Their daughter, Judith Edelman, is a bluegrass musician, recording artist, and writer. Some observers have noted that a character in Richard Powers' The Echo Maker may be a nod at Edelman.

Health and death

Later in his life, he had prostate cancer and Parkinson's disease.[25] Edelman died on May 17, 2014 in La Jolla, California, aged 84.[3][26][27]

See also


  1. 1 2 "The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1972". Retrieved 2007-09-27.
  2. 1 2 Structural differences among antibodies of different specificities by G. M. Edelman, B. Benacerraf, Z. Ovary and M. D. Poulik in Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A (1961) volume 47, pages 1751-1758.
  3. 1 2 Rutishauser, Urs (2014). "Gerald Edelman (1929–2014) Biologist who won Nobel for solving antibody structure". Nature. 510 (7506): 474. Bibcode:2014Natur.510..474R. doi:10.1038/510474a.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Odelberg, Wilhelm, ed. (1973). "Gerald M. Edelman: Biography". Les Prix Nobel en 1972. Nobel Foundation. Retrieved 2007-09-27. (Including Addendum, May 2005.)
  5. Edelman's remarks in 2008 radio interview with physicist Michio Kaku (host of Exploration).
  6. "Gerald M. Edelman: Curriculum Vitae" (PDF). Retrieved 2007-09-27.
  7. - Gerald M. Edelman biography
  8. 1 2 "Frontiers Profile: Gerry Edelman". 2000-11-21. Retrieved 2007-09-27.
  9. "The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1972" (Press release). Karolinksa Institutet. October 1972. Retrieved 2007-09-27. Their discoveries represent clearly a break-through that immediately incited a fervent research activity the whole world over [...]
  10. Kaarolinska Institutet press release, October 1972
  11. Edelman, G.; Gally, J. (1964). "A Model for the 7S Antibody Molecule". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 51 (5): 846–853. Bibcode:1964PNAS...51..846E. doi:10.1073/pnas.51.5.846. PMC 300172Freely accessible. PMID 14173001.
  12. Cummingham, B.; Gottlieb, P.; Konigsberg, W.; Edelman, G. (1968). "The covalent structure of a human gamma G-immunoglobulin. V. Partial amino acid sequence of the light chain". Biochemistry. 7 (5): 1983–1994. doi:10.1021/bi00845a049. PMID 5650389.
  13. Gottlieb, P. D.; Cunningham, B. A.; Waxdal, M. J.; Konigsberg, W. H.; Edelman, G. M. (1968). "Variable regions of heavy and light polypeptide chains of the same gammaG-immunoglobulin molecule". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 61 (1): 168–175. Bibcode:1968PNAS...61..168G. doi:10.1073/pnas.61.1.168. PMC 285919Freely accessible. PMID 4177258.
  14. Edelman, G. M.; Cunningham, B. A.; Gall, W. E.; Gottlieb, P. D.; Rutishauser, U.; Waxdal, M. J. (1969). "The covalent structure of an entire gammaG immunoglobulin molecule". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 63 (1): 78–85. Bibcode:1969PNAS...63...78E. doi:10.1073/pnas.63.1.78. PMC 534037Freely accessible. PMID 5257969.
  15. Gerald M. Edelman (1978). The Mindful Brain: Cortical Organization and the Group-selective Theory of Higher Brain Function. MIT Press. ISBN 9780262050203.
  16. Gerald M. Edelman (1988). Topobiology: An Introduction to Molecular Embryology. Basic Books. ISBN 9780465086344.
  17. Gerald M. Edelman (1989). The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness. Basic Books. ISBN 9780465069101.
  18. Gerald M. Edelman, Jean-Pierre Changeux (2001). The Brain. Transaction Publishers. p. 45.
  19. Gerald Edelman (1992). Bright Air, Brilliant Fire. Penguin. p. 17.
  20. Gerald Edelman, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire (Penguin, 1992), p.224
  21. Gerald Edelman: "From Brain Dynamics to Consciousness: A Prelude to the Future of Brain-Based Devices", Video, IBM Lecture on Cognitive Computing, June 2006
  22. Edelman and Gally (2001). "Degeneracy and complexity in biological systems". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. 98 (24): 13763–13768. Bibcode:2001PNAS...9813763E. doi:10.1073/pnas.231499798.
  23. "World Knowledge Dialogue". Retrieved 2007-10-12.
  25. "Gerald M. Edelman, Nobel Laureate and 'Neural Darwinist,' Dies at 84". The New York May 23, 2014. Retrieved May 23, 2014.
  26. "Gerald Edelman, Nobel laureate dies". U-T San May 20, 2014. Retrieved May 21, 2014.


Further reading

External links

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