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Notable Contributions of BIPOC Scientist Emmett W. Chappelle

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Emmett W. Chappelle

Emmett Chappelle was one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century. 


The prospect of sustainable living and the progression of history through research would not be possible without the contributions of these talented and driven scientists. As we look at Emmett W. Chappelle’s work, we’ll discover how far-reaching and the many fields, including biomedical science, astrobiology, remote sensing, and genetics, credit his research, including his most well-known work in bioluminescence discoveries.


Emmett Chappelle was born in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1925, when it was still an agricultural community under apartheid and into a family of cotton farmers. He attended primary school in a one-room segregated schoolhouse and then the segregated Phoenix Union Colored High School, where he graduated top of his class. After high school, Emmett was drafted into the United States Army and placed into a segregated infantry platoon within the 97th division. In the army, he became interested in engineering courses. 


With two injuries from the Italian campaign, Emmett returned from his service. Access to the Montgomery GI Bill helped him first n an A.A. degree from Phoenix College in electrical engineering, then a B.S. degree in biology from UC Berkley. Scholars recognized Chappelle’s scientific value, and Meharry Medical College asked him to teach biochemistry even before earning a Master’s degree. At this point, he began researching iron recycling by red blood cells and anaphylactic shock. He later attained an M.S. degree in biology from the University of Washington in 1954. Emmett pursued his Ph.D. at Stanford but was offered a fellowship with the Research Institute for Advanced Studies in Maryland during that time, so he left the program.


During his master’s and Ph.D. studies, Chappelle made many vital contributions to our understanding of proteins and their building blocks, such as how humans can convert one amino acid to another. However, Emmett Chappelle began making his most influential discoveries that were pivotal to the progression of history while he was at the Research Institute of Advanced studies. He began working there in 1958, only a year after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite at the height of the space race. While federal funding was pouring into Aerospace research, he found that bringing plants into space, even one-celled organisms, provided safe, breathable air and minimized the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning for astronauts. 


Emmett Chappelle is most known for a discovery initially developed for the Mars mission to discover life on other planets he made while working at the Hazleton Laboratories in Virginia. He uncovered the reaction from two chemicals: the enzyme luciferase and the light-emitting compound luciferin. Derived from fireflies, these chemicals give off light when introduced to adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Since ATP is in all living cells, this discovery detected microbial life. In 1966 he was hired by NASA, still during the space race.


He and Dr. Grace Picciolo developed a Bioluminescent Firefly assay at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Rovers would collect mars dust that could be tested for ATP when reacting to these chemicals and oxygen. If the dust glowed, that meant life was present in the soil. This assay has yet to be used to detect alien life. However, going forward, this discovery allowed scientists to detect life in urine and water samples by seeing amounts of bacteria. He has even developed a method for determining the health of a plant by using laser-induced fluorescence to measure photosynthesis. 


Despite the adversity, Emmett Chappelle faced coming up in a time of segregation, he became a successful multidisciplinary scientist, achieving over 14 Patents for his research, work, and discoveries. In 1994 he was awarded NASA’s Scientific Achievement Medal, and in 2007 he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Mr. Emmett Chappelle passed away in 2019 at the age of 93, but we are left with his incredible contributions and legacy in scientific advancement. 


Emmett W. Chappelle, 24 October 1925 – 14 October 2019




Works Cited:

Chimel, Rebecca. Black History Month Series 2020. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. 

Fireflies’ Light Gains New Uses in Medical and Technical Research. The New York Times. NYTCo. 25 August 1975.

Joseph, Jordan M. Emmett Chappelle Breathing in Space and New Life on Mars. VPM NPR PBS


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