ABOVE: Yale University

Sidney Altman, a biophysicist who discovered RNA’s enzymatic abilities, died on April 5 at the age of 82. His death was announced in a statement from Yale, revealing he had suffered from a long illness. 

Altman was born on May 7, 1939, in Montreal, the son of a grocer and a factory worker. Both of his parents prioritized hard work and education for Altman and his older brother, according to his Nobel autobiography. He attended MIT for his undergraduate degree in physics, describing the experience as “four years of over-stimulation among brilliant, arrogant and zany peers and outstanding teachers.” Though his studies were focused on physics, Altman took an elective molecular biology course his senior year, which had a significant effect on his career trajectory. He started graduate school at Columbia University, but after a year and a half of feeling discouraged by his prospects in physics, he completed a summer program at the University of Colorado and decided to stay there and study biophysics, receiving his PhD in 1967.

See “Ribozymes: Hearkening Back to an RNA World

Altman’s first postdoc position was at Harvard, where he studied endonucleases in the bacteriophage T4. In 1969, he joined the Medical Research Center Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, to continue his studies, which he described in his Nobel biography as “scientific heaven” because he worked under and became acquainted with Nobel Laureates Francis Crick and Sydney Brenner. In Cambridge, he began research on transfer RNAs, which are involved in translating messenger RNAs into proteins, and isolated a precursor that allows them to function. 

Altman became an assistant professor at Yale in 1971 to continue research on RNAs. The next year, he isolated and discovered RNase P, an enzyme that cuts RNA. He later found that it was composed of a protein bound to an RNA molecule. When he separated the RNA from the protein, the enzyme stopped working—indicating that the RNA was essential for RNAse P’s enzymatic activity, a contingent binding partnership previously believed to be exclusive to protein complexes. The results were published in 1978, and just 11 years later, Altman was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Thomas Cech “for their discovery of catalytic properties of RNA.”

He took on administrative roles at Yale in the mid-1980s, chairing his department for two years, followed by four years as Dean of Yale College where he oversaw Yale’s entire undergraduate program, according to The Washington Post. By 1989, though, stepped back and refocused on his lab work until his 2015 retirement. Altman’s later work centered on exploring the therapeutic capabilities of RNA for a variety of illnesses. 

He became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1988, and the following year joined the National Academy of Sciences. 

He is survived by two children and four grandchildren.