Short the world. The World War 2 and the

Short Biography

On the 7th of May 1939, future Nobel Laureate
in Chemistry Sidney Altman was born. Altman was born in Montreal, Quebec,
Canada. Sidney Altman’s family were not natives of Quebec, rather his parents immigrated
to Canada from the Soviet Union in the early 1920’s. Altman’s father, Victor
Altman, came to work in Canada as a farm worker from Ukraine. While his mother,
Ray Arlin emigrated from Poland to work in Canada as a textile worker(science.ca). They has two children one boy and a girl.
Altman’s father started a small grocery store in Montreal, which was enough to
support his small family (science.ca). The city
of Montreal had a large number of Jewish settlers, of which Altman’s family was
a part, and part of the Jewish culture at the time was a strong encouragement
of knowledge and education within the community (books.google). This was
inevitable as during the time their Jewish hero was Albert Einstein (books.google)
. Thus a good education is what Victor Altman wanted for his children and with
the business doing good he was able to afford for them a secondary education.

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As a young boy in Montreal, Sidney Altman showed an
evident love for books, and science books in particular. As Altman says in his
own words, “I read everything I could get my hands on,” Altman’s interest in
science was a direct result of the his surroundings and the events which were
taking place in the world. The World War 2 and the atomic bomb which were the
main events taking place during Altman’s childhood were pivotal in forming his
love for science. At the age of 12 Altman was gifted the Selig Hecht’s book on
nuclear physics, called Explaining the
Atom. This is what sparked Altman’s interest in science. The surprising
fact is that at the time as Altman recalls, “I wasn’t interested in biology at
the time. I liked nuclear physics,” (add citation to
science.ca for all)

The time had come for Altman to choose a college to
complete his undergraduate education. Altman and a very close high-school friend
of his wanted to go to McGill University in Montreal. However, Altman had also
applied to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA. Altman got
accepted and he decided to go there. Altman was very impressed by the quality of
his education and the caliber of the students at MIT. Altman was doing good at
MIT but nothing extraordinary. ( google book). However, he had grown more
interest in science and was keen to start lab work. (google book). Finally,
Altman got a project with a young faculty member, Lee Grodzins’, and he
impressed him with his hard work and his eagerness to learn (google book). The
turning point in Altman’s career from physics to biology was when in his senior
year he took a course in molecular genetics. He was particularly motivated by
the sophistication of a paper he read on the transformation of the nucleotide
code into amino acids in the groups of three in living cells (google books). Altman
graduated from MIT in 1960, with a Bachelor’s of Science in Physics.

After completing his undergraduate education,
Altman joined the physics department at Columbia University’s graduate school.
Altman studied there for a year, however after a very close friend of his died
of cancer Altman got very depressed and discontinued studying at Columbia
University. For the next few years Altman showed his love for literature and
worked as editor, translator and writer at various places. However, he
discontinued that too. Finally, Altman moved to University of Colorado in
Boulder, Colorado. This move was pivotal for the future Nobel Laureate as at
Colorado a faculty member, George Gamow, encouraged him to join the biophysics
department and particularly work on molecular biology during his lab work
there. Altman was very successful. He produced a dissertation on the anomalies
in DNA synthesis in the T4 phage while accompanying his mentor, George Gamow at
Vanderbilt University. After this Altman worked at the lab in Harvard university
for two years of his postdoctoral degree. At Harvard he studied and worked on
the DNA of the T4 genome. (add citation to google book
for all)

From Harvard, Altman moved to Cambridge University
in the United Kingdom. He enjoyed the English life and settled very contentedly
there. The environment at Cambridge University was still very competitive but
compared to Harvard University it was much friendlier. Altman like others
worked independently in the lab and it was at this point that Sidney Altman
started his work which would later lead him to the RNA enzyme and a Nobel Prize.
(add citation to google book for all)

 

Major Scientific Achievements and Impacts

Altman’s greatest scientific
achievement was the discovery of RNase P and the enzymatic properties of the RNA
subunit of that enzyme. It was for this discovery that he was awarded the Nobel
Prize in Chemistry in 1989. Altman shared his prize with another American
scientist, Thomas Cech, who discovered the same thing but independently of
Altman. Altman
joined the Medical
Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, at Camrbidge University.
There he started his work of discovering that the RNA in active cells also acts
as an enzyme.

The prize was awarded to
Altman and Cech for showing that the RNA (ribonucleic acid) in cells was not
just a molecule of heredity but it also worked as a biocatalyst. Altman’s
discovery was something completely new for all scientists and it changed many
years of the understanding of enzymes which scientists had agreed upon before
this. A catalyst is something which facilitates chemical reaction while the
molecule itself remain unchanged. Almost all the reactions occurring within a
live cell require a catalyst. It is these biocatalysts that are known as
enzymes. The role of enzymes within the cell is to increase the reaction speed
drastically. These chemical reactions would be nearly non-existent if enzymes
didn’t exist and this means that without enzymes there would simply be no life.
Enzymes such as those present in the saliva convert starch to glucose. In
plants enzymes allow the plant to convert carbon dioxide found in the air to energy
for the plant. However, before their discovery all enzymes were thought to be
proteins. While the DNA and RNA were believed to only carry out the functions
of passing on genetic information.

Proteins are built from a combination of the unique
twenty amino acids. These amino acids are determined by the genetic information
in the DNA, deoxyribonucleic
acid, molecule. In the DNA genetic information is composed of strands of codes
which where each three letter code corresponds to a different amino acid which
then code for the proteins. This shows that the cycle thus consists of the flow
of genetic information from the DNA to the proteins which then provide the different
functions and the operational framework in living cells. However, before this
cycle can take place, the DNA code must be transcribed into RNA
(ribonucleic acid). This piecing together of the nucleic acids (the molecules
of heredity) and the proteins (the molecules of structure and function) is what
scientists call the central dogma of the biosciences. Altman’s discovery
challenged and changed the very central dogma of the biosciences.

(add picture here from site)

              Sidney Altman and
Peter Cech, both independently working, during the 1970’s tried to understand
how the DNA’s gentic code was transcribed into the RNA. The process involved
consisted of a shearing and splicing of the RNA molecules, apart from the
transcription. The shearing and splicing of the RNA is very important, before
it can be further used, because the strands of the DNA double-helix contains
parts (introns) which are not required for synthesizing the proteins, however
these parts are still transcribed into the RNA. Thus, these unrequired sections
of nucleic acid need to be removed and the essential pieces are rejoined. As
this process is a chemical reaction, it requires the use of enzymes. This was
the great discovery as Altman and Cech found that enzymes used during this
process were nucleic acids (RNA) not proteins.

              The
experiment which led to this great discovery took place in 1978 when Altman
took the bacterium, Escherichia coli, and studied the RNA-cutting
enzyme from the bacterium. RNAs P, the enzyme involved in this cutting, is made
up of a complex between a protein and one RNA molecule. However, when Altman along
with his co-workers, chemically split the enzyme and separated the RNA molecule
from the protein, they saw that RNAs P was no longer functional, and would only
function again when these two components were remixed together. Altman had
showed that the RNA was necessary for the catalytic reaction, for the first
time. However, it took him five more years to successfully show that the
RNA-shearing was carried out by the RNA molecule itself. Meanwhile doing his
own independent study, Thomas Cech found out that when he put an un-sheared RNA
molecule into a test tube, the molecule started to splice itself, without the
presence of a protein. Thus he made the discovery in 1982, before Altman, that the RNA molecule could cut itself into pieces and Join the
genetically important RNA fragments together again and subsequently showed the catalytic
function of the nucleic acid. Now scientists have discovered around hundred
such ribozymes (RNA enzymes).  (add second figure from website here)

 

The impact of this
discovery was widespread in the field of biology, chemistry and medicine. This
discovery of the catalytic properties of RNA are a possible candidate for a new
instrument in gene technology. One of the goals is to cut and destroy harmful
or undesirable RNA’s in organisms using specially engineered ribozymes as gene
shears. What scientists want to achieve the most from this method of gene
shearing, by cutting and destroying virus RNA, is that they believe this can
protect organisms from viral infections. Infections such as the common cold, in
humans, and even modify plants to create virus resistant plants. Scientists are
also hoping that adding on Altman’s discovery they could one also cure certain
genetic disorders. These goals were only made possible by Sidney Altman and Peter
Cech’s discovery of the enzymatic properties of RNA. Now, scientists need to
tailor new enzymes in laboratories, specific to their needs. What they need to
do to achieve this is to continue learning about the RNA, its catalytic
properties and the mechanisms behind them.

Altman’s discovery also sparked discussion on
one of the most coveted topic in biology and science in general: Evolution.
Altman’s discovery had altered the central dogma of biosciences. While
achieving this, it has also greatly influenced our understanding of the evolution
of life on earth, particularly right at the start, that is, how life began. Our
understanding of the course of genetic information from DNA to protein, after Altman’s
discovery, is that this process requires both enzymes and proteins. Then,
however, the question arises that which one of these, DNA or protein, was the
first biomolecule. After Altman’s discovery, RNA has a very strong case to be
the first biomolecules to contain both the genetic material and play a role as
biocatalysts. This is very important as this given birth to a new and
important topic in the study of evolution: the RNA world hypotheses.