His research upset the conventional understanding of cellular biology and of how genetic information is transmitted
Sidney Altman, a Canadian-born researcher who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for a discovery about the cellular function of RNA, which changed the fundamental understanding of biochemical processes and has had applications in medicine and gene therapy, has died aged 82.
Altman trained as a physicist before developing an interest in biological sciences and chemistry. He made his key discovery in 1978 when he showed that ribonucleic acid (RNA) – one of the basic molecules present in every living cell – possessed previously unknown properties.
Before Altman published his study, scientists believed that enzymes were proteins. The purpose of RNA, it was thought, was to transmit genetic information contained in DNA to the proteins.
Conducting his research on E coli bacteria, Altman showed that RNA did more than simply transfer genetic material within the cells: it could also undergo a transformation that would allow it to perform the functions of an enzyme, engaging in chemical reactions.
At first, few people believed Altman. But in 1980, Thomas R Cech, a scientist at the University of Colorado, verified Altman’s findings in separate and independent experiments. Altman and Cech were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1989.
Their research upset the conventional understanding of cellular biology and of how genetic information is transmitted. Altman and Cech proved conclusively that nucleic acids are the building blocks of life.
The Nobel Academy described their findings as “the two most important and outstanding discoveries in the biological sciences in the past 40 years”, second only to the description of the double-helix structure of DNA in the 1950s by Francis Crick and James Watson.
As it happened, Crick had played a significant role in Altman’s development as a scientist. Struggling to find his footing in physics, Altman was inspired to study biological sciences at least in part by a scientific paper he read in the 1960s.
“It was a paper on the nature of the genetic code,” Altman said in a 2000 interview for the Nobel Prize website. “It said that the genetic code is read in groups of three letters from DNA, essentially. And it was a paper from Cambridge, England, and Francis Crick and Sydney Brenner were the senior authors. And I remember thinking to myself, not merely ‘This is again very elegant, beautiful,’ but thinking to myself, how could they possibly have understood this? How did they find this out?”
Crick had won the Nobel Prize in 1962 for his DNA discovery with Watson, and Brenner later won the Nobel in 2002 for work in genetics. The scientists had a laboratory in Cambridge, where Altman worked from 1969 to 1971 in a setting he called “scientific heaven”.
It was in Cambridge that Altman began his work on the genes of transfer RNA (tRNA), a component of RNA. After joining the faculty at Yale in 1972, Altman continued his work, and ultimately, with the help of graduate students, made his major breakthrough.
Sidney Altman was born 8 May 1939, in Montreal. Both of his parents were Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. His mother had worked in a textile mill, and his father had a grocery store.
Altman attended English-language schools and also became fluent in French in Montreal. He had wide-ranging interests, including literature and sports, but was especially fascinated by science. He was curious about how atomic bombs were built – he was six when the Second World War ended – and later read a book about the periodic table of elements.
“For the first time I saw the elegance of scientific theory and its predictive power,” he wrote in a biographical essay for the Nobel website. “I should mention that while I was growing up, [Albert] Einstein was presented as a worthy role model for a young boy who was good at his studies.”
He planned to attend college in Canada until a friend persuaded him to apply to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was admitted, but his friend was not. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1960, he spent two years as a graduate assistant at Columbia University.
After taking a summer course in molecular biology, Altman continued his studies at the University of Colorado, receiving a doctorate in biophysics in 1967. He spent two years as a researcher at Harvard University before his two years in England with Crick and Brenner.
In addition to his scientific research, Altman became a department chair in molecular, cellular and developmental biology at Yale. From 1985 to 1989, he served as dean of Yale College, the university’s undergraduate college. He was named to the position by Yale’s president at the time, A Bartlett Giamatti, a close friend.
Altman, who was widely read in many fields, helped shape Yale’s undergraduate curriculum, expanding course offerings in science and languages.
“As someone who was himself a great reader and a beautiful writer, and widely knowledgeable,” Yale president Peter Salovey said, “he believed non-scientists should have an understanding of science, and that scientists would benefit by having a richer understanding of the humanities, arts and social sciences.”
Altman also had a strong interest in Jewish cultural matters and helped found a Judaic Studies programme at Yale. He became a US citizen in the 1980s while retaining his Canadian citizenship.
His marriage to Ann Korner ended in divorce. Survivors include two children and four grandchildren.
Long after receiving his Nobel prize, Altman continued to do research based on his earlier RNA studies, including efforts to find gene-based treatments for malaria and other diseases.
Asked to give advice to students by a Nobel website interviewer, Altman emphasized the importance of believing in oneself and a willingness to work hard.
“It could be a letter carrier, it could be a sales manager in a store or a university professor,” he said. “All the people who do well work very hard. Nobody who has a record of achievement has been lazy about it.”
Sidney Altman, biologist, born 7 May 1939, died 5 April 2022
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