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Election Year: 1968
Scientific Discipline: Cellular and Developmental Biology
Membership Type: Member
Robert W. Holley was a leader in the field of biochemistry. He noticed that RNA played a role in the amino acid activation reaction that occurs before protein synthesis. Using countercurrent distribution he separated individual transfer RNA’s (tRNA)— the link between DNA and protein synthesis –which match up to each of the twenty two amino acids that make up all proteins. He found that for certain amino acids there are two or more corresponding tRNA’s, but he obtained pure tRNA for the amino acid alanine. Using yeast as a model organism, Holley and his team were able to sequence the nucleotides for alanine. This accomplishment had major implications in research on protein synthesis and the molecular mechanisms for heredity and evolution. The 1968 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly to Robert W. Holley, Har Gobind Khorana and Marshall W. Nirenberg "for their interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis".
Holley earned his A.B. form the University of Illinois in 1942 and in 1947 he received his PhD in organic chemistry from Cornell University where he was also a National Research Council predoctoral fellow. In 1947 he was an American Chemical Society postdoctoral fellow at the State College of Washington until 1948 when he began his career as a professor at Cornell University. From 1971 to 1993 he taught molecular biology at the University of California, San Diego.