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Arthur Kornberg (1918 - 2007)

Jochen Kumin

Born on March 3, 1918, Arthur Kornberg received his early scientific training at the Abraham Lincoln High School and the City College of New York. Despite his outstanding academic achievements, he was not awarded the prestigious fellowships that would have groomed him for a traditional medical career. Succumbing to the hypochondria of an unrecognized medical genius, he discovered a slight discoloration in the white of his eyes. He noticed the same discoloration in the eyes of other students and some patients, and with the guidance of a professor proceeded to show that he and the others he examined exhibited a biochemical abnormality in bilirubin metabolism - the subject of his first published research paper!

A brief interlude as a doctor in the U.S. Coast Guard was cut short when his expertise in research (and some luck) landed him a job in the Nutrition Section of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Eventually, he decided to focus his research on biochemistry and, in particular, enzymes. At the NIH, and later at Washington University, and at Stanford University, Arthur Kornberg spent decades isolating and purifying the enzymes that run the machinery of the cell. He and Severo Ochoa were the first to identify the enzyme catalyzing the synthesis of DNA, polymerase I. In recognition of their work elucidating the basic mechanisms of DNA replication, they were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1959.

Although devoted to protein biochemistry, Kornberg and Ochoa had comprehended a key component of molecular genetics. Kornberg's approach - isolating enzymes in the chemist's lab and analyzing them within their biological context - was a crucial component in understanding the molecular biology of the cell. His hard work has been complemented by flashes of inspiration and creativity. Most spectacular perhaps was Kornberg's successful synthesis of the biologically active PhiX174 virus in 1967. For the first time, a biochemist produced an active virus in the lab.

Kornberg has contributed to the pursuit of biology in other ways as well. His three sons are successful researchers in molecular biology - small wonder, having grown up in the company of so many Nobel laureates. As departmental chairman at Washington University and at Stanford, he headed groups of scientists - his extended family - who became leaders in the emerging fields of genetic recombination and biotechnology. Many of the enzymes he isolated are the same ones used in today's sophisticated sequencing and cloning techniques.


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