Childhood & Early Life
Philip Allen Sharp was born on June 6, 1944, to Katherine and Joseph Sharp, in Falmouth, Kentucky.
He gained his early education from an array of public schools in Pendleton County. He started off by studying at McKinneysburg Elementary School. Later, he enrolled in Butler Elementary and High School, finishing off his higher education from Pendleton County High School.
On the insistence of his parents, he enrolled at the Union College, a liberal arts school in eastern Kentucky, majoring in chemistry and mathematics. Upon completing his graduation, he decided to study further and enrolled at the University of Illinois.
In 1969, he completed his PhD in chemistry from the University of Illinois. His thesis centred on the description of DNA as a polymer using statistical and physical theories.
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While studying for his PhD, Philip Allen Sharp chanced upon reading the 1966 volume of ‘The Genetic Code’. The work propelled his interest in molecular biology and genetics. Resultantly, he did his postdoctoral training at the California Institute of Technology in a research program in molecular biology. He studied plasmids, how they acquired genomic sequences from the bacterial chromosome.
Following his end of term at Caltech, he extended his postdoctoral period, studying the structure and pathway of expression of genes in human cells. He later moved to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory where he furthered his postdoctoral studies under the guidance of Jim Watson. He worked there as a senior scientist.
At Cold Spring Laboratory, he collaborated with Joe Sambrook to map sequences in the simian virus 40 genome that were expressed as stable RNAs in both infected cells and oncogenic cells transformed by this virus using hybridization techniques. The result of the research was important as it assisted in the understanding of the biology of the papovavirus.
At Cold Spring Laboratory, he befriended Ulf Pettersson, who was an expert in the growth of human adenovirus. Together, the two discovered various unknown facts about adenovirus, beginning with the fact that only one specific fragment of the genome, the E1 region, was responsible for oncogenic transformation. They also found that restriction endonuclease length polymorphism could be utilized to generate genetic maps. They also found the mapping of specific genes on the viral genome; and generation of a viral map of sequences expressed as stable RNAs.
In 1974, biologist Salvador Luria offered Sharp a position at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined MIT's Center for Cancer Research, which is now known as the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.
Sharp was accompanied by Jane Flint at the MIT, where the duo focussed on quantitating the levels of RNA from all parts of the genome in the nuclear and cytoplasmic compartments of the cell.
After much experimentation, Sharp and Flint concluded that nuclei of cells productively infected by adenovirus contained abundant sets of viral RNAs which were not transported to the cytoplasm. They believed that the long nuclear RNAs were processed to generate the cytoplasmic mRNAs. They in turn compared the relative structures of nuclear precursor RNA and cytoplasmic mRNA from the adenovirus genome.
In 1977, he and his team discovered that the messenger RNA of an adenovirus corresponded to four separate, discontinuous segments of DNA. They realised that the segments of DNA that coded for proteins (exons) were separated by long stretches of DNA (introns) that did not contain genetic information. Interestingly, Richard J Roberts also came up with a similar finding though independently.
The discovery made by Sharp and Roberts thwarted the age-old belief that genes were continuous stretches of DNA that served as direct templates for mRNA in the assembly of proteins. Instead, it was found that discontinuous gene structure is the most common one found in eukaryotes, among which are all higher organisms, including humans. The discovery earned them Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
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In 1985, Sharp was appointed Director of MIT’s Center for Cancer Research, a position he served until 1991. From 1991, he was made head of the Biology Department until 1999.
Following his stint at MIT, in 2000, he took up directorship at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, serving in the position until 2004.
Currently, he serves as a professor of Biology and member of the Koch Institute. Since 1999, he has been an Institute Professor.
In addition to his scientific research work, Sharp is the cofounder of Biogen, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, and Magen Biosciences. At Biogen, the scientists developed agents to treat hairy cell leukaemia and certain autoimmune disorders. Following his work on introns and splicing, Sharp began investigating the role of RNA in controlling genes. This led to his involvement as a cofounder for Alnylam Pharmaceuticals.
Awards & Achievements
Together with Thomas R Cech, he won the 1988 Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University. In the same year, he also won the Albert Lasker Basic Medican Research Award.
In 1993, Sharp received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of split genes. He shared the prize with Richard J Roberts.
In 1999, he won the Benjamin Franklin Medal for Distinguished Achievement in the Sciences of the American Philosophical Society.
In 2011, he was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society (ForMemRS). Following year, he was elected the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In 2015, he received the Othmer Gold Medal.