In honor of Myron Brakke, the first Nebraska scientist to be inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, students and faculty from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln created an exhibit displaying his discovery of density gradient centrifugation, featuring the first swinging bucket rotor. Density gradient centrifugation continues as a globally significant technology in molecular biology and virology.
Myron Kendall Brakke was born on October 23 in 1921 at a farm in Filmore County, Minnesota. Myron’s parents, John and Hulde Brakke, yearned for their children to receive more education than they had. Neither of his parents went to high school. Myron remembered that pupils were not organized rigidly into grades in the school he attended, and he simply continued in school as long as there was something to learn. His mother went to school for less than a year after completing eighth grade and then taught rural grade school.
Myron received his bachelor of sciences in agricultural biochemistry and a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Minnesota in 1943. His doctoral work focused on the study of properties of proteins. Upon graduation, he received a postdoctoral fellowship from The American Cancer Society to study plant tumors. From 1947 to 1952, as a fellow at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Myron worked with Lindsay Black, and later joined him at the University of Illinois. During his time with Black, Myron studied insect-transmitted viruses, including wound-tumor virus, potato yellow dwarf virus, and tomato spotted wilt virus. Brakke collaborated with other members of the group to make seminal contributions to early plant tissue culture research.
During Brakke’s time in Black’s lab, he made a landmark contribution with the invention of density gradient centrifugation. Initially used to purify the potato yellow dwarf virus, this technique proved to be useful in purifying other viruses, separating nucleic acids and proteins, and fractionating cellular organelles. Brakke reported his groundbreaking discovery in the Journal of American Chemical Society in 1951, but it took ten years before the method became widely used. Eventually, sucrose density gradient centrifugation became the most commonly used tool for a wide range of biological applications and was key to the development of modern virology and molecular biology.
In 1953, in collaboration with Josef Blum, then head instrument maker at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, Brakke designed the first high-speed swinging-bucket rotor for density gradient centrifugation. The early centrifugation experiments resulted in three important advances: 1) viruses could be visualized by light scattering, 2) the sedimentation value could be calculated, and 3) the buoyant density of a virus could be determined.
In 1955 Brakke and his family moved to Lincoln, where he accepted a position as research chemist with the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and as adjunct Professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Nebraska. Brakke continued to work on the analytical aspects of density gradient and virus purification. He spent more than 40 years in Nebraska and influenced the lives and careers of numerous graduate students and faculty. All who met him characterized Myron as modest, enduring, and creative.
Fellow-American Association for Advancement of Science (1964).
Superior Service Award-United States Department of Agriculture (1968).
Ruth Allen Award-American Phytopathological Society (1968).
Fellow-American Phytopathological Society (1972).
Member-National Academy of Sciences (1974).
Certificate of Merit-United States Department of Agriculture (1974).
Certificate of Recognition-University of Nebraska (1974).
Regents Professor of Plant Pathology-University of Nebraska(1974).
Outstanding Scientist Award-Nebraska Chapter Sigma Xi (1974).
Outstanding Achievement Award-University of Minnesota (1977).
Outstanding Research and Creative Activity Award-University of Nebraska (1982).
Superior Service Award-United States Department of Agriculture (1986).
Hall of Fame-Agricultural Research Service (1987).
Award of Distinction-American Phytopathological Society (1988).
Click here for a link to the book featuring the entire creation of the exhibit.
Myron Brakke Is Remembered in 2018 by His Daughter, Friends, and Colleagues.
We thank sponsors, Andrew “Andy” Jackson and Thomas “Jack” Morris, for funding the Nebraska Center for Virology exhibit, and to Susan Weller from the University of Nebraska State Museum and the Biology of Human NIH-SEPA project for supporting the course fees. We are grateful to Charles Wood, Jim Van Etten, and David Dunigan for their encouragement and support throughout. This project was made possible through the assistance of David Martin and Jerry Reif at Nebraska Innovation Studio, Aaron Sutherlen from the School of Art and Art History, Katie Krcmarik from the College of Journalism and Mass Communications, Robb Nelson from the History Department, and Judy Diamond from the University of Nebraska State Museum.
The research, design, production, and installation of the exhibit was made through the collaborative efforts of Mahra Al Raisi, Jinell Carslin, Tiah Davis-Northway, Ruth Grady, Devra Hock, Jacob Kennedy, Daisha Marquardt, Madison Mascare, Steven Petty, Daisy Sarne, Cameron Scheele, Phuc Tran, Juan Velasco, Amanda Wade and Monica Zurek.