For determining the base sequence of nucleic acids (DNA, RNA), work they did independently of each other, molecular biologist Walter Gilbert and British biochemist Frederick Sanger (1918- ) shared the 1980 Nobel Prize in chemistry with American molecular biologist Paul Berg (1926- ), who won for his fundamental studies on the biochemistry of nucleic acids, particularly recombinant DNA. The work of the 3 laureates led to improved understanding of the roles of DNA and other biological molecules in cellular processes. Their work also provided important tools with which scientists can manipulate genes and thus produce substances important to both medicine and industry.
Walter Gilbert was born on March 21, 1932, in Boston, Mass. His father was an economist at Harvard University (Cambridge, Mass) from 1924 to 1939, and his mother was a child psychologist. When Gilbert was 7 years old, the family moved to Washington, DC, where his father worked for the Office of Price Administration. Gilbert was educated in the public schools and later at Sidwell Friends High School in Washington, DC.
After graduating from high school in 1949, Gilbert entered Harvard University, earning a baccalaureate degree with a major in chemistry and physics in 1953. He remained at Harvard University for postgraduate work and was awarded a master's degree in physics in 1954. He then went to England to work on his doctoral degree at Cambridge University. In 1957, he was awarded a doctoral degree with a major in mathematics. For his doctoral dissertation, Gilbert devised mathematical formulas that predicted the behavior of elementary particles during scattering experiments. Probably equally important, he became acquainted with James D. Watson (1928- ) and Francis H. C. Crick (1916- ), who later (1962) won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their description of the 3-dimensional structure of DNA. Watson, in particular, encouraged Gilbert to change his career to molecular biology. As a doctoral student, Gilbert worked with Abdus Salam (1926-1996), who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1979.
Gilbert returned to Harvard University in 1957 for a 1-year postdoctoral fellowship in physics. In 1958, he was a research assistant to physicist Julian S. Schwinger (1918-1994), who received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1965. Gilbert was appointed assistant professor of physics at Harvard University in 1959.
In 1960, Watson left England and joined the faculty at Harvard University. He renewed his friendship with Gilbert, who had begun his career in molecular biology. In 1964, Gilbert became an associate professor of biophysics. He was named professor of biochemistry in 1968 and was appointed American Cancer Society Professor of Molecular Biology in 1972. In 1981, Gilbert resigned from Harvard University to form the Biogen Company in Boston, one of the first commercial companies to do research on genetic engineering. Gilbert resigned from the company in 1984 because he felt ill-suited to the business world and returned to Harvard University to resume his research on gene structure and the production of proteins for recombinant molecules.
Gilbert's major contributions to science and molecular biology began in 1966, when he initiated studies on Escherichia coli to confirm the 1961 hypothesis of French geneticists François Jacob (1920- ) and Jacques Lucien Monod (1910-1976), who proposed that the cell contains an element (or elements)—called a repressor molecule—that somehow represses the activity of particular genes under certain conditions. Gilbert developed a method for identifying the repressor molecule in E coli, and in 1970, he discovered the region of DNA to which the repressor molecule of E coli binds. Later, Gilbert discovered how to break nucleic acid molecules chemically at certain points and how to analyze the fragments obtained. From this work, he deduced the exact nature of the original long chain, for which he won the Nobel Prize.
Besides the Nobel Prize, Gilbert was awarded the US Steel Foundation Award of the National Academy of Sciences in 1968, the Ledlie Prize of Harvard University in 1969, the Warren Triennial Prize of Massachusetts General Hospital in 1977, the Louis and Bert Freedman Foundation Award of the New York Academy of Sciences in 1977, the Prix Charles-Leopold Mayer Award of the Academie des Sciences of France in 1977, the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize of Columbia University in 1979, the Gairdner Prize in 1979, and the Albert Lasker Basic Science Award in 1979. He was made a foreign member of the Royal Society of London in 1987 and an honorary fellow of Trinity College of Cambridge University in 1991. Gilbert and Sanger were honored on a stamp issued by the Palau Islands in 2000.
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