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A scene from the development work on a laser ionization mass spectrometer between 1984 and 1985 (From left: Tanaka, Ido)

The Continuous Struggle Through The '80s

The "laser desorption ionization method" being tackled by Koichi Tanaka et al was just one of the ways of ionizing molecules for mass spectrometry. This particular method first took hold in the '80s, and could easily handle comparatively small molecules. But, when the laser was used on biological macromolecules, it would decompose them into fragments. For this reason, the laser method was thought to be impossible for analyzing macromolecules.
Nevertheless, a ray of hope came to the aid of the team. In the previous project, their laser-induced analysis had achieved the highest molecular weight results at that time and it had been the use of a matrix to soften the power of the laser that had made that analysis possible. The unique idea of adding cobalt ultra fine metal powder to the matrix (patent: JP01731501) came from Yoshikazu Yoshida.
Like the previous project the ionization work, including sample preparation, became Tanaka's task. The research-obsessed Tanaka studied relentlessly the field of chemistry - a world apart from his original expertise - until he became well versed in its distinctive aspects and everyone in the team could be fully confident of his polished proficiency in the field. However, Tanaka, in time, hit a brick wall that could be only smashed asunder when he "mixed glycerin with cobalt." It is well known in hindsight that this was a Nobel Prize winning event. This mixing mistake that led to the breakthrough has become the stuff of legends. At the time, the various vials containing the substances used in matrix research were lined up in a crowded area of the test lab. It was this that led to Tanaka to mistakenly mixing glycerin instead of acetone with cobalt. However, Tanaka - part of a team noted for its faith in trial and error - came to the conclusion that even this, presumably wasteful mixture, like any other might have some potential - even be the "right one" - and he set it on a sample plate and the road to becoming a miracle matrix.

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