The late Salvador Luria, a pioneer in viral genetics in the 1940s and 1950s, discovered how genes mutate and did important work in the genetic structure of viruses. He was a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in 1969. His research laid the foundation for later research in the structure of genes that made the biotechnology revolution possible.
H. Gobind Khorana shared the Nobel Prize in 1968 for his contribution to the elucidation of the genetic code, the "blueprint" of life. His research explained how messages inscribed in genes are translated into the structure of enzymes and proteins. Later work in Professor Khorana's laboratory led to the first complete synthesis of a gene in a fully living cell, a signal achievement which established the foundation for the biotechnology industry.
David Baltimore's discovery in 1970 of reverse transcriptase, an enzyme that catalyzes the conversion of RNA to DNA, advanced the means of DNA synthesis and helped form the basis of modern genetic engineering, the workhorse of biotechnology. He shared the Nobel Prize in 1975 for this discovery. Dr. Baltimore's later work in retrovirus vectors fundamentally contributed to the development of gene therapy, the "second generation" of the biotechnology revolution with great potential for treating diseases at their root, genetic level.
Susumu Tonegawa revolutionized our understanding of the genetic basis of the immune system. His work described how genes in cells recognize and fight off foreign invaders like bacteria, viruses and cancers. This helped scientists to control and manipulate the immune system, and laid the foundation for a whole range of therapeutic approaches in fighting disease, many of which are derived from biotechnology. Professor Tonegawa was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1987.
Phillip Sharp was named co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in 1993 for his work in the 1970s in understanding the basic structure and function of genes. Professor Sharp's discovery of RNA splicing led to a radical revision in understanding how genes send instructions to cells to create proteins, the building blocks of life. The Nobel Committee noted that his work led to a consensus that some of the 4,000-5,000 known inherited diseases in humans are caused by mutations in the gene splicing process. Professor Sharp's research advanced the revolution in biotechnology by shedding light on the arrangement and reproduction of DNA.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 24, 1996.