The human stories that undergird major scientific advances are dissimilar tapestries, each showcasing a different interweaving of individual values, research mentors, environments and serendipity.
The life of Sidney Altman, the winner of the 2018 Sidney prize, is no exception to this rule. From modest beginnings, he embarked on a challenging and exciting odyssey that ultimately led to one of the most important discoveries in modern biology.
He made many serendipitous choices along the way, enabling him to build an impressive list of research accomplishments. Among the most revealing of these was his choice to study under George Gamow, a famous physicist and Russian émigré who later became Sid’s mentor.
In addition to his physics studies, Sid also studied the physical properties of acridines, an important component in chromophore synthesis. This work eventually led him to his first postdoctoral fellowship in the lab of Matt Meselson at Harvard.
During his years as a graduate student, Sid found that the only way to advance in the laboratory was to make independent discoveries. This prompted him to challenge the established dogma that RNA is only a carrier of information and not a catalytic protein. He and his coworkers, namely Tom Cech, were tenacious and single-minded experimentalists who drilled deep to uncover one of Mother Nature’s fascinating secrets.
These discoveries shattered long-held views about the role of RNA and inspired new directions in research, including their use as tools and drug targets. In turn, these discoveries paved the way for many other scientists to begin investigating RNA’s catalytic role in cellular function and evolution.
Aside from Sid’s own discovery of the catalytic role of RNA, his team uncovered several other significant discoveries during their pursuit of this goal. These included a mechanism for self-splicing, which led to the discovery of Tetrahymena (the bacteriophage that causes malaria) and, eventually, to a better understanding of the structure of chromosomes and their role in evolution.
While these discoveries ushered in an era of heightened excitement about the potential of RNAs, their discovery also brought on a tumultuous period of debate, suspicion and misunderstanding. During these difficult times, Sid was supported by his family, mentors and colleagues in both academic and professional circles.
In the end, however, it was a combination of his own conviction and the independent insights of his colleagues that he and his team managed to win over the skeptics. The ensuing discovery of the self-splicing group I intron of Tetrahymena was an incredibly important moment for RNA science and biology.
As the story of Sid’s remarkable career unfolded, he also developed a keen interest in linguistics. His passion for language grew with each passing day, which became evident as his research shifted from acoustics to morphology and then to lexicography.
During the course of his research, he developed a deep appreciation for the importance of historical context to research. This was a valuable resource in his work as an interpreter of complex scientific data and an educator to undergraduates, both at Yale and elsewhere.