Sidney Altman

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Sidney Altman is a Canadian molecular biologist, who is currently the Sterling Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology and Chemistry at Yale University. In 1989 he shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Thomas R. Cech for their work on the catalytic properties of RNA.



Altman was born on May 7, 1939 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, the second son of poor immigrants. His mother worked in a textile mill and his father in a grocery store before they met and married. It was from them that he learned that hard work in stable surroundings could yield rewards, even if only in infinitesimally small increments. By the time he reached high school his father's grocery store had made their life adequately comfortable and he was able to choose, without any practical encumbrances, the subject that he wanted to pursue in college. His intention was to enrol at McGill University but an unexpected series of events led him to study physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He received his bachelor's degree in physics from MIT in 1960, spent 18 months as a graduate student in physics at Columbia University, waiting unhappily for an opportunity to work in a laboratory and wondering if he should continue in physics. Eight months later, having left Columbia, he was studying physics in a summer program and working in Colorado when he decided to enroll as a graduate student in biophysics. After working on the effects of acridines on the replication of bacteriophage T4 DNA, he joined Mathew Meselson's laboratory at Harvard University to study a DNA endonuclease involved in the replication and recombination of T4 DNA where he earned a Ph.D. in biophysics from University of Colorado Medical Center in 1967.


At the MRC laboratory Altman started the work that led to the discovery of RNase P and the enzymatic properties of the RNA subunit of that enzyme. John D. Smith, as well as several post-doctoral colleagues, provided Altman with veary good advice that enabled him to test his ideas. He and his group discovered that the RNA molecule alone was sufficient for the observed catalytic activity, meaning that the RNA itself had catalytic properties, which was the discovery that earned him the Nobel prize. "The discovery of the first radiochemically pure precursor to a tRNA molecule enabled me to get a job as an assistant professor at Yale University in 1971, a difficult time to get any job at all."(citation needed) His career at Yale followed a standard academic pattern with promotion through the ranks until he became Professor in 1980. He was Chairman of his department from 1983–1985 and in 1985 became the Dean of Yale College for four years. On July 1, 1989 he returned to the post of Professor on a full-time basis.


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