Childhood &Early Life
Robert William Holley was born on January 28, 1922 in Urbana, Illinois to Charles and Voila Holley. He was one of the four sons born to the couple. His parents were educationists by profession.
Young Holley attended public schools in Illinois, California and Idaho. In 1938, he graduated from Urbana High School and later enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to study chemistry. In 1942, he received his Bachelor’s degree.
Following his graduation, Holley attended Cornell University where he enrolled for a PhD program in organic chemistry, under Professor Alfred T. Blomquist. It was while studying for his PhD that World War II commenced. For two years, from 1944 to 1946, Holley worked with Professor Vincent du Vigneaud at Cornell University Medical College, where he participated in the first chemical synthesis of penicillin. In 1947, Holley completed his PhD studies.
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Immediately after completing his PhD degree, Holley spent a year as an American Chemical Society Postdoctoral Fellow with Professor Carl M. Stevens at Washington State University.
During his time at the Washington State University, he worked on the characterization of the metabolic transformations of 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid in bean plants, and identification of the plant hormones, auxins. From his work on penicillin, he established a correlation between the chemical reactivity of amides and their spatial structures
In 1948, he returned to Cornell University where he took up the post of an Assistant Professor of Organic Chemistry at the Geneva Experiment Station. In 1950, he was made Associate Professor, a position he served until 1957.
For a year from 1955 to 1956, Holley served as a Guggenheim Memorial Fellow in the Division of Biology at the California Institute of Technology. Holley discovered the world of RNA and protein synthesis during this sabbatical.
Meanwhile, at the Massachusetts General Hospital, the characterization of the mechanisms of protein synthesis in the in vitro protein synthesis systems had been made obvious. Subsequently, what followed was the attachment of amino acids to RNAs. However, these RNAs were not the ones playing a role in protein synthesis but those that were present in another of the subcellular fractions used for the in vitro synthesis system.
In 1958, Holley returned to Ithaca, New York here he worked as a research chemist at the US Plant, Soil and Nutrition Laboratory on the Cornell University campus. It was while at the laboratory that he undertook the purification and characterization of tRNA, t standing for transfer. The study occupied Holley for the next seven years.
For sequencing of tRNA, it was crucial for Holley to prepare a pure alanine-tRNA fraction. Holley devoted the next four years of his life sequencing tRNA gambling off with the belief that the fraction was pure.
Holley determined the tRNA's structure by using two ribonucleases (pancreatic ribonuclease and takadiastaseribonucleus) to split the tRNA molecule into pieces. Consequently, each enzyme split the molecule at location points for specific nucleotides. Using a process of ‘puzzling out’ the structure of the pieces split by the two different enzymes, and later comparing the pieces from both the enzyme splits, the team eventually determined the entire structure of the molecule.
In 1964, the structure was completed and marked a major discovery in explaining the synthesis of proteins from messenger RNA. It also became the first nucleotide sequence of a ribonucleic acid to be determined. Over the next two years, more than half-dozen structures of tRNA were determined
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In 1962, he received the position of Professor of Biochemistry at the Cornell University. Two years later, he became a full-time Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University. He also served as the Chairman of the Department of Biochemistry for a year from 1965 to 1966.
In 1966, Holley moved to Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation in La Jolla, California, as a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow. He served as a Fellow until 1967.
Though Holley maintained his affiliation with Cornell University, he joined the permanent staff of the Salk Institute, where he served as a Resident Fellow and an American Cancer Society Professor of Molecular Biology. He also became an Adjunct Professor at the University of California at San Diego.
Awards & Achievements
Holley served as a member of various scientific academies and societies including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Society of Biological Chemists and the American Chemical Society.
In 1965, he received the Albert Lasker Award in Basic Medical Research. The same year, he was felicitated with the Distinguished Service Award of the U. S. Department of Agriculture. In 1967, he received the U. S. Steel Foundation Award in Molecular Biology from the National Academy of Sciences.
In 1968, Holley was conferred with the highly-esteemed Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of the structure of the alanine transfer RNA, linking DNA and protein synthesis. He shared the prize with HarGobind Khorana and Marshall W. Nirenberg.