Leopoldo de Meis, professor emeritus and founder of the Institute of Medical Biochemistry at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), passed away on December 7, 2014, at the age of 76. He made valuable contributions to the field of cellular biochemistry through research into such topics as energy transduction mechanisms in biological systems and the synthesis and hydrolysis of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), a nucleotide that stores energy in chemical bonds.
Born in Egypt and raised in Naples, Italy, he moved to Rio de Janeiro at the age of 9. His father, a cello player from Naples, was in search of a better way of life in the post-World War II period. Right after graduating from medical school at UFRJ at the age of 24, De Meis spent 18 months in the United States on a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in Bethesda. He worked at the laboratory of Herbert and Celia Tabor, who were researching the metabolism of polyamines, which are the development-regulating molecules found in plants, animals, and microorganisms. “It was at the Tabors’ laboratory that I really learned what biochemistry is, and it was during time spent in the NIH cafeteria that I discovered the wide horizons of the biomedical sciences,” Leopoldo de Meis said when he received the Conrado Wessel Foundation Award in Science for 2008.
De Meis returned to Brazil in 1964, but because he was persecuted by the military regime, he and his family moved to Germany, where Wilhelm Hasselbach invited him to serve as visiting professor at the Max Planck Institute. Hasselbach, in collaboration with Japanese scientist Madoka Makinose, had recently discovered calcium uptake by the skeletal muscle. After a year and a half in Germany, De Meis went back to Rio, where he made one of his contributions to biochemistry, this one in the realm of ATP synthesis: the discovery of the formation of low-energy phosphoenzyme. De Meis and his master’s degree student, Hatisaburo Masuda, decided to replicate Makinose’s experiment involving the phosphorylation of an enzyme by inorganic phosphate (Pi). It was easy to do the experiment using vesicles loaded with calcium ions, but as a control, they then used vesicles permeabilized with ethyl ether. Since there was no energy source, the scientists did not expect the vesicles to phosphorylate, but they did. “Surprisingly, we found a small but significant level of phosphorylation,” said De Meis. Their paper was published in 1973.
In the 1990s, unencumbered by administrative duties, De Meis became a leading figure in the field of the sociology of science. In 1996, he and Jacqueline Leta, a professor at UFRJ, published the book O perfil da ciência brasileira (Profile of Brazilian science), which analyzes the impact and regional distribution of scientific production in Brazil. He also developed an interest in the teaching of science in schools. The first step in this process was organizing a course for young students during the 1987 summer vacation. The experience was then extended to a number of other groups of students, with public school children given preference. After retiring in 2008, De Meis continued working in his laboratory. He died at home of natural causes. He was survived by his longtime life partner, the biochemist Vivian Rumjanek; four children; and six grandchildren.