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February 9: Reverse Transcription in Genetics

Lawrence Bush
February 9, 2017
Howard Martin Temin, who shared the 1975 Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering the reverse transcriptase -- the enzyme that makes possible an interchange of information between RNA and DNA -- died at 59 on this date in 1994. Temin was born in Philadelphia to progressive Jewish parents; for his bar mitsve, the family donated the money that would have been spent on the party to a camp for displaced people. He was educated at Swarthmore and the California Institute of Technology, where he began doing lab work with Renato Dulbecco, one of the other 1975 prizewinners (the third was David Baltimore, who discovered reverse transcriptase independently and simultaneously). Temin was active in helping scientists in the Soviet Union who were targeted and isolated by the KGB, many of them Jews, survive financially and keep up with international research. At his Nobel Prize reception, he chastised people for smoking when he was trying to cure cancer (ironically, he died of lung cancer, despite being a non-smoker). Reverse transcriptase would soon play a crucial role in identifying the AIDS virus and would become a key element of the biotech industry. “Dr. Temin’s award came after a lonely battle to overcome derisive criticism from scientific leaders who refused to believe in his theory that some viruses carry their genetic information in the form of RNA, which is then copied into DNA in infected cells,” writes Lawrence K. Altman in the New York Times. “This theory challenged what then was known as the ‘central dogma’ in biology, that . . . DNA . . . always passed information on to . . . RNA . . . and never the other way around. ‘The idea that RNA could make DNA was considered ludicrous,’ said Dr. Robin Weiss, a leading virologist in London, in an interview.” “RNA cannot be cloned. But RNA can be extracted from cells, turned into DNA through reverse transcriptase, and then cloned.” --Lawrence K. Altman

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.