Pioneer DNA Researcher Dies

Leonard Lerman, who helped elucidate the process from gene to protein, passed away last month at age 87.

Oct 2, 2012
Jef Akst

Leonard Lerman, a molecular biologist who worked with Sydney Brenner and Francis Crick, made a name for himself in the late 1950s when he identified chemicals that would insert themselves between the two strands of the DNA double helix in a process known as intercalation, causing the molecule to unwind and sometimes inducing mutations. The discovery paved the way for understanding how a gene can be read to generate a protein.

Last month (September 19), Lerman died at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at age 87 from complications of a chronic neurological disease.

Lerman was working at the University of Colorado School of Medicine when he made his initial discoveries, but shortly after, in 1959, he moved to the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, to work for a sabbatical year with Brenner and Crick. Just 6 years earlier, Crick and James Watson had discovered the double helix structure of DNA in that same lab. When Lerman joined the lab, Brenner and Crick were trying to decipher the nucleotide-to-amino acid code, and used Lerman’s intercalation techniques to induce mutations that helped determine the three-nucleotide-codon language of the genome. Nobel Prize winner Sidney Altman called Lerman’s discovery “astounding” in a 2005 essay on this work.

Beyond his contributions to the deciphering of the triplet code, Lerman had a great impact on the field, Barbara J. Meyer, a professor of genetics at the University of California, Berkeley, told The New York Times. “His research shaped the way we manipulate and analyze DNA. His approaches have facilitated the diagnosis of mutations associated with human genetic diseases.”

Lerman also co-invented denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis, a technique used to separate DNA fragments, according to GenomeWeb. He is survived by his longtime partner Lisa Steiner, three children, and seven grandchildren.