Monday, October 31, 2011

Daniel Nathans

Daniel Nathans was born on October 30, 1928 in Wilmington, Delaware.  He was the youngest of nine children of Russian immigrant parents.  His father lost his business in the great depression and for some time was unemployed (he later learned that his parents sometimes went hungry in order to feed the children).  His early education was in Wilmington public schools, working in the afternoon and weekends, and he attended the University of Delaware, hitchhiking to get to class, and graduating with a chemistry degree in 1950.  Following his father's wishes Nathans went to medical school at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.  During a summer job, working at a Delaware hospital he was bored with the routine nature of medical practice and when he returned to St. Louis he began working in the research lab of Oliver Lowery.  He graduated medical school in 1954.

After graduating he did an internship at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City and spent two years as a clinical associate at the National Cancer Institute where he cared for patients and researched the synthesis of immunoglobulins by myeloma tumors. He returned to Columbia-Presbyterian for two more years and then began his research career at the Rockefeller Institute working for Fritz Lippman in 1959, where he studied bacterial protein synthesis.  Nathans began a Ph.D. program but did not complete it because he did not want to sit in any more lectures. In 1962 he moved to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland and worked for Barry Wood, who had been his teacher in medical school at Washington University.  In 1969 he went to the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel to learn about animal viruses and while he was there he received correspondence from his colleagues at Johns Hopkins about a restriction endonuclease enzyme.  When he returned to America, Nathans, with the assistance of his graduate student Kathleen Danna, continued work that further established the function of restriction endonuclease enzymes.

Restriction endonucleases or restriction enzymes are enzymes that cleave double stranded DNA molecules at specific base sequences.  Each enzyme has its own specific recognition sequence, that is a particular sequence of base pairs where it cuts the DNA molecule.  These enzymes are used by bacteria to protect themselves from viruses.  The enzyme with cleave viral DNA but leave the host DNA, which is methylated, alone.  Over 6000 restriction enzymes have been now been characterized. These enzymes have been used to study genetics and find the locations of particular genes.  They are also used in genetic engineering and the insertion of genes into genomic DNA.  For his work characterizing restriction enzymes Nathans was awarded the 1978 Nobel Prize in Medicine, along with Hamilton Smith, who had made the initial discovery, and Werner Arber who had predicted the existence of restriction enzymes.

Other honors won by Nathans include election to the National Academy of Science and its U.S. Steel Foundation Award in Molecular Biology.  Johns Hopkins has honored him co-naming the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine after him as well as one of its medical school's colleges.

Nathans died on November 16, 1999.


DiMaio, Daniel, "Daniel Nathans: October 30, 1928 - Novermber 16, 1999"; Biographical Memiors Vol. 79, National Academy Press (2001)

Brownlee, Christian; "Danna and Nathans: Restriction Enzymes and the Boon to Modern Molecular Biology"; Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (2005)102:5909

Daniel Nathans Wikipedia Entry

Danile Nathans Nobel Autobiography

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