Holley, Robert

Robert W. Holley

Cornell University

For determining the chemical structure of an amino acid transfer RNA.

Working during the past seven years with a total of approximately one gram of highly purified ribonucleic acid (RNA), Dr. Holley and his group were the first to determine the chemical structure of a nucleic acid. The structure that was determined was that of an alanine transfer RNA. Transfer RNAs function as specific carriers of activated amino acids, and during protein synthesis they interact with other cellular compounds to determine the structure of the protein that is being synthesized.

Dr. Holley with his co-workers succeeded in separating the individual transfer RNAs corresponding to each of the 20 amino acids in proteins and recognized that there may be two or more transfer RNAs for the same amino acids. He obtained in pure form the transfer RNAs for a few amino acids. One of these was the transfer RNA for alanine. After several years of painstaking, precise and most ingenious work, during which he split this RNA into fragments of different size and base composition, he put together the pieces of this intricate puzzle, thus establishing the order of its 77 bases.

Knowledge of the order of the bases in transfer RNA is essential for understanding its unique biological function: the transfer and attachment of amino acids to the correct position on the protein assembly line.

For this work, which not only turns a page in biological and medical history but also opens and illuminates a wide breach for further exploration of the basic molecular mechanism of heredity, evolution and life itself, the 1965 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award is given.