Artturi Virtanen

A Nobel Prize Laureate, Artturi Virtanen was recognized in 1945 for his inventions and research in agricultural as well as nutrition chemistry. He is more particularly known for the AIV fodder which is important for the prolonged storage of grain especially during long winter months.

Early Life and Educational Background

Artturi Virtanen was born Artturi Ilmari Virtanen to his parents Serafiina Isotalo and Kaarlo Virtanen on the 15th of January in 1895. His hometown was in Helsinki, Finland, and he received his education from the Classical Lyceum located at Viipuri, Finland.

Upon finishing his basic education, he furthered his knowledge by taking biology, physics, and chemistry courses at the University of Helsinki. There, he was able to obtain his M. Sc. in 1916 and three years later, his D. Sc for organic chemistry. He then had the opportunity to work as a chemist in the Laboratory of Valio under the Finnish Cooperative Dairies’ Association which was a major manufacturer of dairy products. In 1920, he became the director of this laboratory.

Artturi didn’t stop at these academic achievements, and felt that he wasn’t fully qualified yet. He left Valio the same year he became its director and pursued his interests in zoology and botany. He studied physical chemistry in the University of Münster and soil chemistry at the ETH in Zurich. A year later, he went to Stockholm to study bacteriology.

From 1923-1924, he studied more about enzymology, and this was also when his interest focused on biochemistry. During this time, he was under the tutelage of Hans von Euler-Chelpin, a 1929 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Career

Having undertaken several academic supplementation to his knowledge, he became one of the lecturers at University of Helsinki in 1924. He was popular for his lectures which revolved around the chemistry of life. At the same time, he was also working in the Butter Export Association’s laboratory which later on became the university’s laboratory as well. Virtanen founded the Institute for Biochemistry in 1930 and a year later he became Helsinki University of Technology’s professor of biochemistry. In 1939, he also held a professorship at the University of Helsinki.

It was in 1924 when Virtanen was able to establish how cozymase was indispensable for propionic and lactic acid fermentation processes along with sugar phosphorylation. Because of his work and observations, it was made clear how different fermentation processes had similar initial stages especially where sugar decomposition was concerned. Along with his research partners, Virtanen pushed through with fermentation experiments with special attention given on how bacterial fermentation occurred.

An important note in their study was dioxyaceton’s fermentation to glycerol as well as glyceric acid while exposed to phosphates by the effect that Coli bacteria has was the very first sugar fermentation process they were able to process from beginning up to the end, and this was done in 1929. While working on this, they also paid attention to how enzymes formed adaptively.

Because of his studies, Virtanen was able to identify how phosphorylation is the very first step in different fermentation processes and reactions, and this is also the foundation of what is known as the Embden-Meyerhof pathway which is the most common kind of glycolysis or conversion of glucose into pyruvate.

After this successful phase in his research work, Virtanen’s interest shifted to the nitrogen fixation that occurs in leguminous nodules. Several further investigations on nitrogen fixation were done in the laboratory and soon enough, he was able to prove the importance of leghaemoglobin or the red pigment abundant in some leguminous plants. He was able to note that it was responsible for the nitrogen fixation observed in these plants. He continued to study vitamin formation in plants along with how plants utilized organic nitrogen compounds to become their main nitrogen source.

By the end of the 1940’s, he had been able to isolate a large number of amino acids from plant sources. Along with these amino acids, Virtanen was also able to identify and isolate a number of organic sulphur compounds from fodder plants as well as different vegetables. These compounds were thought to have an important role in the nutrition of both man and animals.

Because of the discoveries that Virtanen had, he was also able to improve butter preservation methods. He was able to achieve this by adding some disodium phosphate in order to prevent the occurrence of acidic hydrolysis. This method of preserving butter was used in Finland for many decades. During 1925 up to 1932, Virtanen’s research work led to the successful invention of a method for preserving fodder which is now known as the AIV Fodder. This method was patented in 1932, and the idea behind it was that it acted as a kind of silage which improved how green fodder was stored—this was especially important especially during long winter months.

The process of using the AIV Fodder made use of diluting sulfuric or hydrochloric acid on grain which had just been stored. The increased acidity is what stops harmful fermentation from happening, and it has no adverse side effects on the nutritional value that the fodder has as well as to the animals who will be consuming it. It was because of this invention that Virtanen received his Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He spent his latter years studying how to develop partially synthetic feed for cattle.

Personal Life and Latter Years

He was married in 1920 to the botanist Lilja Moisio and they had two sons. Virtanen bought a farm somewhere near Helsinki and this was where he tested some of the results he was able to come up with in the laboratory. He was a man who enjoyed the simple life and he never even had a car of his own despite his many achievements.

Virtanen remained in the Institute for Biochemistry which he founded until his death came in 1973 caused by a hip fracture and ensuing complications. As an honor to his legacy, the Virtanen lunar crater and asteroid 1449 Virtanen were both named after him.