Professor Alexander Rich, best known for his discovery of left-handed DNA or Z-DNA and the three-dimensional structure of transfer RNA, is the recipient of the $250,000 Bower Award for Achievement in Science.
The award was announced January 13 by the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia, which earlier announced nine winners of the Benjamin Franklin Medals, including MIT Professor of Physics Wolfgang Ketterle, who was a co-winner with two MIT alumni for research on Bose-Einstein condensates.
Dr. Rich, the William Thompson Sedgwick Professor of Biophysics, will receive the Bower award, one of the largest monetary prizes awarded in science, for his key discoveries leading to an understanding of three-dimensional structures and the function of RNA and DNA molecules. The award is bestowed annually on a distinguished scientist of any nationality for outstanding work in the physical or life sciences.
Professor Rich has long been recognized as a preeminent researcher in structural molecular biology, a field which seeks to understand the molecular architecture of living organisms. His work has advanced the understanding of the role and functions of RNA and DNA in heredity.
In 1979, he led a team of researchers at MIT which startled the world of structural biology with the announcement that they had found a "left-handed" form of the basic genetic molecule of life, DNA. The new form, coiled in the shape of a left-handed screw, was called Z-DNA because of its zigzag backbone, but its purpose remained a mystery for many years.
In August 1995, researchers led by Professor Rich reported the first biological role of Z-DNA in helping an "editor" protein change the genetic message of RNA. And in the June 11, 1999 issue of Science, Professor Rich described how the three-dimensional structure of Z-DNA binds to a protein which is involved in editing genetic messages important in a number of brain receptors.
President Clinton recognized Professor Rich with the Medal of Science in 1995. In June 1994, he was honored with a two-day symposium at MIT featuring talks by 14 scientists, including three Nobel laureates.
After serving in the US Navy from 1943-46, Professor Rich received the AB in biochemical sciences from Harvard University in 1947 and the MD from Harvard Medical School in 1949. He joined the MIT faculty in 1958. From 1969-80 he was an investigator in NASA's Viking mission to Mars, working on experiments designed to look for life on that planet.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 26, 2000.