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Definition: Warburg, Otto Heinrich from The Columbia Encyclopedia

(ŏt'ō hīn'rĭkh vär'bʊrkh), 1883–1970, German physiologist. He was director (1931–53) of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (now Max Planck Institute) for cell physiology at Berlin. He investigated the metabolism of tumors and the respiration of cells, particularly cancer cells. For his discovery of the nature and the mode of action of (Warburg's) yellow enzyme, he won the 1931 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He edited The Metabolism of Tumours (tr. 1931) and wrote New Methods of Cell Physiology (1962).

Summary Article: Warburg, Otto Heinrich from Encyclopedia of Life Sciences

(1883-1970) German biochemist and cell physiologist noted for studies of metabolic processes, enzymes and photosynthesis.




iron oxygenase



cancer cells

Otto Warburg was born at Freiburg im Breisgan, Baden, Germany on 8 October 1883. In 1896 the family moved to Berlin where his father had been appointed University Professor of Physics. At Berlin Warburg studied chemistry under Emil Fischer, thermodynamics with Walther Nernst and physics and photochemistry, including the quantum requirements of photosynthesis, with his father. Awarded a doctorate in 1906 he then studied medicine at Heidelberg, where he qualified in 1911. See also Fischer, Emil Hermann, and Nernst, Walther Hermann

At Berlin Fischer taught him thoroughness in experimental work and, following Fischer's advice, Warburg would repeat his experiments many times before publishing the results. He trained his own technical assistants and was a pioneer in biochemical methodology, creating new methods and tools for investigations in spectrophotometry, the identification of cell constituents and enzymes, manometric measurements in cell metabolism studies, microanalytical techniques for the isolation of cell constituents and the crystallization of enzymes. From 1903 Warburg worked on cell metabolism, investigating cell respiration using iron compounds as catalysts. In the 1920s he developed a new tissue-slice technique coupled with biochemical manometry. In 1924 he discovered iron oxygenase and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this in 1931, the year when he became Head of the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. See also Cell Chemistry and Metabolism

While experimenting with yeast cells suspended in solutions containing iron oxygenase, with phosphates and glucose, Warburg observed that carbon monoxide inhibits cell respiration. The action is dependent on the ratio of the pressures of carbon monoxide and oxygen. He found that certain carbon monoxide/iron compounds are dissociated by light, releasing ferrous ions for oxygen attack. By alternating periods of light and darkness for cells respiring in mixtures of carbon monoxide and oxygen, Warburg determined the relationship between the number of Fe-CO groups split and the number of light quanta absorbed. Using monochromatic light of different wavelengths he showed that the absorption spectrum of the iron oxygenase-carbon monoxide complex was similar to that for carbon monoxide-haemoglobin, indicating that iron oxygenase is a haemin compound. By 1932 Warburg had also isolated the first of the flavoproteins (yellow enzymes), which take part in dehydrogenation reactions in cells. He discovered that they act together with a nonprotein component or coenzyme, flavin-adenine dinucleotide. In 1935 he discovered nicotinamide-adenine dinucleotide (NAD), another coenzyme involved in biological dehydrogenations. By 1950 Warburg was able to show that light energy conversion in plant cells proceeds in single-quantum stages, as predicted by Einstein's law of photochemical equivalence. See also Flavin Coenzymes, NAD+ and NADP+ as Prosthetic Groups for Enzymes, and Coenzymes and Cofactors

Warburg also investigated metabolism in cancer cells. In 1922 he discovered very high lactic acid production from glucose by cancer cells and concluded that they originate from normal body cells, replacing lost respiration energy by fermentation energy, which is morphologically inferior. Highly differentiated body cells then become cancer cells.

Warburg retired in 1969 at the age of 86. Throughout his life he devoted all his time and energy to experimental work, while Jacob Heiss of Kirn, southern Germany served as his administrator, monitor of scientific publications, financial adviser, consultant and close friend. Warburg died at Berlin-Dahlem on 1 August 1970 after a short illness. See also History of Biochemistry

Further Reading
  • Warburg, OH (1949) Heavy Metal Prosthetic Groups and Enzyme Action. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Burk, D (1976) Warburg, Otto Heinrich. In: Gillispie, CC (ed.) Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol. 14, pp 172-177. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
  • Farrer, D (1974) The Warburgs, pp 148-153 (Otto Warburg). London: Michael Joseph.
  • Krebs, HA (1972) Otto Heinrich Warburg. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 18: 629-699.
  • Krebs, H and Schmid, R (1981) Otto Warburg: Cell Physiologist, Biochemist and Eccentric, Krebs, H and Martin, A (transl.). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Sourkes, TL (1967) Nobel Prize Winners in Medicine and Physiology 1901-1965, pp 152-157. London: Abelard Schuman.
  • Noel G Coley
    The Open UniversityMilton Keynes, UK
    Wiley ©2007

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