Coomassie Blues- A Colonial Legacy(?) in Molecular Biology

in SciWorld by

Editor’s note: Ask any biochemist and they will tell you about the joy of seeing a single blue band after painstaking hours/days of protein purification. After all, the one sermon from Kornberg that every biochemist will take to their graves is to “Never waste pure thoughts on an impure protein”. Yes we have been through those blues of seeing more blue bands in a gel than expected. But, did you know the stain that we use to paint our gels and lab coats was named before it was synthesized? Either ways, take a trip down the memory lane and know more about Coomassie sans the Blues in #ClubSciWri’s latest post from Anirban Mitra. –Abhinav Dey

 

By the late 19th century, the British Empire was the largest political entity in human history. Queen Victoria’s government ruled over 1/4th of the planet’s land mass and 1/4th of its population. However, one region that was still unconquered was Western and Southern Africa.

The wars that the British launched to subdue the Zulu tribes of South Africa are well-known (thanks to several dramatic movies from Hollywood). But the African monarchy that arguably gave the British their toughest competition was the ASHANTI.

At its height, the Ashanti Kingdom covered a significant part of Western Africa, in the region that is today’s Ghana and neighboring lands. Their expanse had been built largely by a successful military which had come up, independent of ‘civilized’ Europe, along with several modern innovations including improved tactics for jungle warfare and even a medical corps. It is, thus, no surprise that 4 wars had to be fought before the British subdued them totally. Finally in 1896, the 4th Anglo-Ashanti war ended Ashanti dominance. Newspapers across the world reported that the British army had finally captured the Ashanti capital of Coomassie .

Few months later, Levinstein Ltd, a British dye-manufacturing company, introduced a new acid wool dye to the markets of Europe. And, as a marketing strategy, they used the name of a recently-conquered city for their new product. It was kind-of natural. Thanks to the colonial victory, Coomassie had become a well-known name.

Thus, was born the name ‘Coomassie Brilliant Blue’.

Decades later, as the modern discipline of ‘molecular biology’ kicked off in the far-away universities of Europe and the USA, 2 Australian scientists found the same dye could be very reliably used to tag a variety of protein molecules. They published their findings in the well-known journal Biochemica Biophysica Acta.

Today Coomassie staining of proteins after electrophoresis is one of the routine techniques for any biochemical laboratory. It’d not be an exaggeration to say that almost everyone uses it everyday. Of course, the dye’s oblique connection with the subjugation of Africa is all but forgotten. And, the city is now known by its non-anglicized name – Kumasi.
Something like ‘Calcutta’ and ‘Kolkata’ 😉

 

Infographic by: Abhinav Dey

 

Meanwhile, at a bench near you

Comic Source

About the Featured Image from Ipsa jain: The image shows the daily life of person from Kumasi on one side. The right side depicts how a dye for wool yarn is used to stain proteins (secondary structures come from wool ball, then unwound for electrophoresis of proteins). The right hand corner shows the shapes of three places where this story took place, Kumasi (Now in Ghana), Britain and Australia. The two seemingly disconnected stories on left and right are connected by the story of origin of the name for Coomassie blue dye.

 

 

Author Profile:

for sciwri

Anirban Mitra, Ph.D.

Anirban Mitra did his PhD from the Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru and is now a teacher of biology, based in Kolkata. His interests range from biological evolution to history of science and facets of India’s past.

Blog Design: Abhinav Dey

Creative Commons License
This work by ClubSciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

 

2 Comments

  1. well done Anirban,i enjoyed reading/viewing this post . Looking forward for new additions .
    The map of west Africa ,where the Asante Kingdom(present Ghana) is shown,helped me to revive my memory with my collaborators from the neighbouring countries,such as Ivory coast(where the PPR virus that i worked with ,originated or discovered) and Guinea Bisseu, History always fascinates me.

    Shaila

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