Birthday: April 26, 1932
Died At Age: 68
Sun Sign: Taurus
Born in: Blackpool, England
Famous as: Biochemist
Spouse/Ex-: Helen Wood Christie
father: Rowland Smith
mother: Mary Agnes Smith
Died on: October 4, 2000
place of death: Vancouver, Canada
City: Blackpool, England
awards: FRS (1986)
Flavelle Medal (1992)
Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1993)
Michael Smith was a British-born Canadian biochemist who won a share of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in developing site-directed mutagenesis. His work enabled researchers to introduce specific mutations into genes and paved the way to study gene therapy approaches for cystic fibrosis, sickle-cell disease, and hemophilia, among other applications. Born in England into a family of humble means, he grew up to be a good student and was able to continue his school education beyond a certain level because of a scholarship. He went to the prestigious Arnold School where he developed an interest in chemistry. As a young boy he also witnessed the devastation and loss of lives caused by the World War II even though his family lived in a relatively safe place. After his schooling he was able to procure another scholarship and entered the chemistry honors program at the University of Manchester. Eventually he completed his PhD under the supervision of H.B. Henbes. He then moved to Canada to begin his postdoctoral research with Har Gobind Khorana at the British Columbia Research Council in Vancouver. It was in the 1970s that he, along with his colleagues began the breakthrough research in DNA sequence that ultimately earned him the Nobel Prize.
Childhood & Early Life
Michael Smith was born on 26 April 1932 in Blackpool, England, to Mary Agnes Smith and Rowland Smith. Both of his parents were hard working people of humble origins.
He had his early schooling at the local school, Marton Moss Church of England School. In 1943 he appeared for the “Elevenplus" examination which was used in the English schools in those days. The students who cleared the examination became eligible to receive a scholarship for academic education. Being from a modest background, it was Smith’s only option to avail higher schooling.
He cleared the examination and was admitted to the prestigious Arnold School on a scholarship. It was here that he realized his deep love for chemistry. During his schooling he also became a boy scout. As a young boy he witnessed the horrors of the World War II wrecking havoc in England even though his own family stayed at a relatively safe place.
He desired to go to Oxford or Cambridge but could not do so because of his lack of proficiency in Latin. However, he managed to get admitted to the chemistry honors program at the University of Manchester in 1950 with the financial support of a Blackpool Education Committee Scholarship. He graduated in 1953.
With the help of another State Scholarship, he finished his PhD degree in 1956 under the supervision of the outstanding organic chemist H.B. Henbest. His work focused on cyclohexane diols and his thesis was titled ‘Studies in the stereochemistry of diols and their derivatives.’
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After completing his doctorate he received a post-doctoral fellowship at the British Columbia Research Council in Vancouver, Canada. There he worked under the supervision of Har Gobind Khorana who was developing new techniques of synthesizing nucleotides.
By that time DNA had been identified as the genetic material of a cell, and Khorana and his team were investigating how DNA encoded the proteins that constituted an organism. Smith’s first project was to develop a general, efficient procedure for the chemical synthesis of nucleoside-5' triphosphates based on the synthesis of ATP by Khorana.
In 1960, Khorana moved to the Institute for Enzyme Research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Smith followed suit. Here Smith worked on the synthesis of ribo-oligonucleotides. The laboratory had excellent facilities but he was not happy and looked for a move.
In 1961, he accepted a position with the Fisheries Research Board of Canada Laboratory in Vancouver where he worked for five years. In 1966, he was offered the position of Medical Research Associate of the Medical Research Council of Canada, which he gladly accepted.
Throughout these years, his research was primarily focused on the synthesis of olgonucleotides and the characterization of their properties. A sabbatical at the University of Cambridge in England with Fred Sanger provided Smith with the opportunity to conduct significant research on genes and genomes and methods of sequencing large DNA molecules. This helped to establish him as one of the leading molecular biologists in the world.
In the 1970s, Smith focused his research in molecular biology exclusively on how the genes within the DNA molecule act as reservoirs and transmitters of biological information. In 1978, Smith, in collaboration with Clyde A. Hutchison III developed a new technique known as "oligonucleotide-directed site-directed mutagenesis." They also developed a synthetic DNA technique for introducing site-specific mutations into genes.
In 1981, Michael Smith became a scientific cofounder of a new biotechnology company, ZymoGenetics in Seattle, Washington, US. The company was later acquired by Bristol-Myers Squibb.
In 1982, he launched the Centre for Molecular Genetics in the Faculty of Medicine and became its director in 1986.
From 1987 to 1995 he served as the director of the UBC Biotechnology Laboratory.
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In 1996 he was named Peter Wall Distinguished Professor of Biotechnology. Later on he also became the founding director of the Genome Sequencing Centre (now called the Genome Sciences Centre) at the BC Cancer Research Centre.
Michael Smith is best remembered for his work on Site-directed mutagenesis, a molecular biology method that is used to make specific and intentional changes to the DNA sequence of a gene and any gene products. His particular technique can be used to modify nucleotide sequences at specific, desired locations within a gene, and this has opened up newer practical applications of the technique in medicine, agriculture, and industry.
Awards & Achievements
Michael Smith had received several prestigious awards even before being recognized with the Nobel Prize: UBC Jacob Biely Faculty Research Prize (1977), Canadian Biochemical Society Boehringer Mannheim Prize (1981), Science Council of British Columbia Gold Medal (1984), and Gairdner Foundation International Award for Chemistry (1986).
Michael Smith was awarded one-half of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1993 "for his fundamental contributions to the establishment of oligonucleotide-based, site-directed mutagenesis and its development for protein studies." The other half went to Kary B. Mullis "for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method."
In 1999, he was awarded the Royal Bank Award.
Known for his generosity, he donated one half of the Nobel Prize money to researchers working on the genetics of schizophrenia, and the other half to BC Science World and to the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology.
He donated the Royal Bank Award prize money to the BC Cancer Foundation.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Helen Wood Christie in 1960. The couple had three children and later separated in 1983. He eventually became involved with Elizabeth Raines in a romantic relationship.
Michael Smith died on October 4, 2000, at the age of 68.