King's College London
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The pioneering work of Professor Jean Hanson, 1919-1973

What was known about muscles before Hanson?

portrait photograph of Jean Hanson in her 30s wearing a white cardiganJean Hanson early 1950s Hanson joined the Biophysics Unit in 1948 to concentrate on muscle research, although her studies began in earnest around 1950.

Microscope studies and chemical analysis in the 1920s, 30s and 40s had already shown striated muscle - the normal mammalian contractile tissue - to comprise fibres, and constituent myofibrils, of two different types of protein - actin and myosin - in bundles of long strands crossed at intervals by dark 'A-bands'.

However, the actual mechanism of muscle contraction at the cellular level remained the subject of competing interpretations and theories.

When Hanson joined the Biophysics Unit, the nature of the A-band zones was a mystery and the most persuasive model of muscle function held that during contraction individual myofibril proteins underwent some kind of structural change and themselves contracted and relaxed in elastic fashion.

The singular achievement of Hanson and her colleague, Hugh Huxley, was instead in proposing and proving the operation of a 'sliding filament mechanism' of muscle contraction in which myofibrils remained a constant length but slid past each other, thus explaining the orientation of muscle fibres and the dark cross banding that was observed in samples of tissue.
 

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