Very few people know that it was not Linus Pauling or Francis Crick, but an Indian scientist from Madras who first discovered the structure of collagen, a type of protein. Gopalasamudram Narayana Ramachandran, or GNR, made this remarkable discovery in India in the early 1950s. Despite his groundbreaking work, GNR seemed destined to be a footnote in the collagen literature. But he was determined to prove himself and worked to find the underlying principles that determined what forms polypeptide chains could and could not take on a protein.
In 1963, he came up with the very grammar of protein folding, which is still used today by researchers to validate protein structures. Collagen is one of the most abundant fibrous proteins and plays a vital role in connective tissues. It provides an extracellular framework for strength and flexibility in animal skin and bone. The name collagen is derived from the Greek word “kola”, which means “glue production”.
It was even found in the soft tissue of fossilized bones of 68-million-year-old Tyrannoaurus rex. Sequences of studies have been conducted for decades to propose a structure for the collagen molecule. Among those studies, the Ramachandran and Kartha triple helix “Madras Model” contributed greatly to the currently accepted structure of collagen, which was discovered by Cowan, North and Randall. Other findings by Rich and Crick also improved the identified structure of collagen.
Currently, more than 29 different types of collagen have been identified. The discovery of collagen IX, the first FACIT, was a major breakthrough in the field of collagen, showing that triple helix collagenous domains could be intercalated between non-collagenous domains (NC) and that collagens were multidomain proteins. GNR's work was eventually recognized by an elite group of Goliats including Linus Pauling and Francis Crick. Pauling even recalled how GNR's team had led their group to the position in a race for collagen structure at a symposium he attended as president.
GNR's discovery of the structure of collagen has been invaluable to researchers over the years and has helped us understand more about this important protein. His work has been instrumental in furthering our knowledge about collagens and their role in connective tissues.