It may not grab millions at Sotheby’s, but the world’s first installed commercial automated protein sequencer, ABI 470A “Test Unit No. 1” — destined for the salvage yard — is returning home thanks to Gary Lange, a Pharmacia protein scientist.
“I saw the thing going in the trash pile,” says Lange. “And I said, ‘This is wrong.’” With Monsanto and Pharmacia (in the process of merging with Pfizer) officially parting ways, the instrument stored in a shared warehouse was about to be junked.
Lange immediately rushed to the ABRF listserv to post an SOS. “I put it up there because I know there are a lot of ABI eyes and ears out there,” he says. “I kind of figured that ABI would want it.” And it did. Two employees quickly contacted Lange to arrange shipment. An ABI spokesperson says the company has yet to decide what it will do with the instrument, but that it would probably be put on display.
To ABI the 22-year-old “sequencer #1” represents more than a leap in innovation from the liquid-phase spinning cup to automated gas phase sequencing — it was also the product that launched the company.
The instrument didn’t exactly have an auspicious start to its life. It was dropped as it was being delivered to Monsanto, says Ned Siegal, director of protein chemistry at Pharmacia, the first to use the instrument. “They didn’t tell us until months later,” he says.
Monsanto had been funding work at Lee Hood’s lab at Caltech when Siegal took a mini-sabbatical there in the fall of 1981. Rod Hewick and others in the lab had miniaturized the decades-old spinning cup technology and turned it into a gas-phase sequencer. Beckman, which was selling the spinning cups, turned down the opportunity to commercialize the automated sequencer, and thus ABI made its first foray into the life sciences instrument market.
“It’s part of the history of people that do protein biochemistry,” Lange says. “So I was just happy to see it saved.”
— Aaron J. Sender