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Emmett W. Chappelle
Dr. Emmett W. Chappelle.jpg
Chappelle at the National Inventors Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2007
Born (1925-10-24)October 24, 1925
Died October 14, 2019(2019-10-14) (aged 93)
Nationality American
Education Phoenix College, University of California, Berkeley (B.S.), University of Washington (M.S.)
Known for Biolumenescenc
Scientific career
Fields Biochemistry, food science, astrochemistry
Institutions Meharry Medical College (Nashville, Tennessee), Stanford University, Martin Marietta Corporation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Emmett W. Chappelle (October 24, 1925 – October 14, 2019) was an American scientist who made valuable contributions in the fields of medicine, philanthropy, food science, and astrochemistry. His achievements led to his induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his work on bioluminescence, in 2007. Being honored as one of the 100 most distinguished African American scientists of the 20th Century, he was also one of the members of the American Chemical Society, the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the American Society of Photobiology, the American Society of Microbiology, and the American Society of Black Chemists.

Early life

In 1925, Emmett Chappelle was born in Phoenix, Arizona to his parents, Viola White Chappelle and Isom Chappelle, who grew cotton and raised cattle on their farm. Born into segregation, Chappelle was required to attend the segregated Phoenix Union Colored High School in Phoenix, where he was the top graduate of his senior class of 25 students. Upon graduation, in 1942, Emmett enlisted in the army where he was able to take some engineering courses before being assigned to the 92nd Infantry Division that was stationed in Italy. During his time in the service, he suffered two non-fatal wounds in action. After his return from Italy in 1946, he attended Phoenix College where he studied electrical engineering and received an A.A. degree before he redirected his focus and career towards the sciences.

Career and important discoveries

In 1950, Chappelle received a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from the University of California, Berkeley, then served as an instructor of biochemistry at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1950 to 1953, without graduate training. He then left Tennessee to continue his education at the University of Washington where he received his master's degree, also in Biology. From 1955 to 1958, he worked as a research associate at Stanford University where he was also appointed as a scientist and biochemist for the Research Institute of Advanced Studies until 1963.

In 1958, Chappelle joined the Research Institute in Baltimore, a division of the Martin Marietta Corporation that designed airplanes and spacecraft. There, Chappelle made a discovery that has contributed to the knowledge of bacteria, cyanobacteria, and other single-celled organisms around the world. He discovered that even single-celled organisms such as algae, are photosynthetic, meaning they are able to convert carbon dioxide to sugar and water into oxygen. The ability to photosynthesize is characteristic of all plants, which is the opposite process of cellular respiration, which all organisms use to create the energy needed for life.

In 1963, Chappelle went to work at Hazelton Laboratories, now known as Covance Inc., as a biochemist but later joined the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as an exobiologist and astrochemist, in 1966. As an exobiologist and astrochemist of NASA, someone who focuses towards the search for extraterrestrial life and studies the chemistry of astronomical objects, he worked on the Viking Spacecraft and helped develop instruments to collect and scrape soil from the surface of Mars. However, he was most well known for his work on bioluminescence. In 1977 he was moved to the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, as a remote sensing scientist, studying natural systems to improve environmental management.

While designing instruments for the Mars Viking spacecraft, Chappelle became interested in bioluminescence, which is warm light produced by living organisms. He developed a method using two chemicals, luciferase and luciferin, from fireflies which give off light when mixed with ATP (adenosine triphosphate), an energy storage compound found in all living cells, to detect the presence of ATP. This method for ATP detection can be used to detect life on other planets as well as microbiological organisms. Chappelle also proved that the number of bacteria in water can be measured by the amount of light given off by that bacteria. This discovery allowed scientists and doctors to detect small amounts of bacteria in places such as urine, in order to detect an onset of a bacterial infection. Additionally, he developed a method for determining vegetation health by using laser-induced fluorescence to measure the amount of photosynthesis occurring in crops, allowing scientists to detect plant stress, determine growth rates, water conditions, and harvest timing.

Chappelle retired from NASA in 2001, at the age of 76. He died in Baltimore, Maryland on October 14, 2019, at the age of 93.

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