Who is Sidney Altman?
Sidney Altman is a Canadian-American molecular biologist who was conferred with the prestigious Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1989 for his revolutionary discovery of the catalytic properties of RNA. Altman’s discovery was very crucial as it thrashed the age-old scientific belief that protein molecules were responsible for the catalytic activity of the complex while RNA served merely as a passive carrier. His discovery opened new avenues in scientific research and biotechnology that helped scientists think how cells actually function. His discovery also led to a new hypotheses regarding the emergence of RNA on Earth and the possibility that it was RNA that gave rise to Earth’s first life form. Altman’s success bears its roots to his early years. Coming from a family of meagre means, Altman did not let thefinancial shortcomings come in the way of his studies. He completed his bachelor’s from MIT and later worked at the MRC laboratory. Apart from making crucial scientific discovery, Altman has served in various academic posts at Yale University, finally taking up full professorship in 1980. Currently, Altman serves as the Sterling Professor of Molecular, Cellular and Development Biology and Chemistry at the University.
Childhood & Early Life
Sidney Altman was born on May 7, 1939 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada to Ray Arlin and Victor Altman. Both his parents were Eastern European immigrants to Canada. His mother worked as a textile worker, while his father was a grocer. He had an elder brother.
Since childhood, Altman knew the importance of education. He read voraciously and found an early interest in science. By the time he completed his high school, his family had secured for itself a safe financial future which allowed him to study further.
Completing high school, he moved to the United States where he enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1960, he obtained his Bachelor’s degree. In his final year at MIT, he took a short introductory course in molecular biology that familiarized him with nucleic acids and molecular genetics, thus preparing him for future endeavours in the subject.
Following his bachelor’s, Altman spent the next 18 months as a graduate student of physics at Columbia University. However, he left the program mid-way due to personal concerns and lack of lab opportunity for beginning graduate students
Altman next enrolled as a graduate student in biophysics at the University of Colorado Medical Center. Therein, he studied the effect of acridines on the replication of bacteriophage T4 DNA.
In 1967, he received his Ph.D. in biophysics from the University of Colorado with thesis advisor Leonard Lerman. The same year, he moved to Vanderbilt University, where he briefly worked as a researcher in molecular biology before leaving for Harvard.
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At Harvard, he joined American molecular biologist Matthew Meselson's laboratory, here he conducted research on bacteriophages. He studied DNA endonuclease involved in the replication and recombination of T4 DNA.
After his stint at Harvard, he became a researcher at the Medial Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England. It was at Cambridge that he collaborated with British biophysicist Francis Crick and South African biologist Sydney Brenner
While at Cambridge, Altman started the work that led to the discovery of RNase P and the enzymatic properties of the RNA subunit of that enzyme. It was the advice of John D. Smith and several other postdoctoral colleagues that helped him test his ideas.
In 1971, Altman secured the post of an assistant professor at Yale University. His career at Yale followed a typical standard academic pattern as he moved up the ranks to become a Professor in 1980. From 1983 to 1985, he served as the Department Chairman. In 1985, he became the Dean of Yale College, a position he served until 1989. On July 1989, he returned to serve as a full-time professor.
It was during his academic years at Yale that Altman came up with his Nobel Prize winning work. He analysed the catalytic properties of the ribozyme RNase P, a ribonucleoprotein particle consisting of both a structural RNA molecule and one (in prokaryotes) or more (in eukaryotes) proteins. Initially he believed that the protein subunit was responsible for the catalytic activity of the complex, which is involved in the maturation of tRNAs in the bacterial RNase P complex
It was only later in experiments when the complex was reconstituted in test tubes that Altman discovered that the RNA component, in isolation, was sufficient for the observed catalytic activity of the enzyme. This proved that the RNA itself had catalytic properties, a discovery that earned him the Nobel Prize.
Altman’s discovery of the catalytic properties of RNA thrashed the age-old belief that the enzymatic activity was the exclusive domain of protein molecules. It affirmed the fact that RNA, originally assumed to be a passive carrier of genetic codes between different parts of the living cell, could actually take on active enzymatic functions as well.
Altman’s discovery opened up new fields of scientific research and biotechnology making scientists rethink old theories of how cells function. It also led to new hypotheses about the history of the emergence of RNA on Earth and the possibility that RNA was the molecule that gave rise to Earth’s first life forms.
Currently, Altman serves as the Sterling Professor of Molecular, Cellular and Development Biology and Chemistry at the Yale University.
Altman’s most important discovery came when he was at Yale University. Prior to his discovery the scientific world lived under the assumption that the triggering and acceleration of vital chemical reactions within living cells was due to protein molecules. It was after his revolutionary discovery that the world came to know that RNA, originally thought as a passive carrier of genetic codes between different parts of the living cell, was actually performing active enzymatic functions. RNA itself had catalytic properties. This discovery gained him the prestigious Nobel Prize in chemistry
Awards & Achievements
In 1988, Altman was elected as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In 1989, he was conferred with the prestigious Nobel Prize in Chemistry which he shared with Thomas R Cech. The duo received the award for their work on the catalytic properties of RNA which they had done independently.
Personal Life & Legacy
Altman tied the nuptial knot with Ann M Korner in 1972. She was the daughter of Stephan Korner. The couple was blessed with two children, Daniel and Leah.
In 1984, Altman became a US citizen and since then, he is a citizen of both Canada and America.