Severo Ochoa was a Spanish-American biochemist and molecular biologist who was co-awarded the 1959 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering an enzyme that enables the synthesis of RNA.
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“Man … has uncovered many of the secrets of inanimate matter and begins to delve deep into the frontier realm between the lifeless and the living, the world of the viruses. He may never find the clue to the nature or the meaning of life but we may look forward with confidence and anticipation to a much better comprehension of many of its riddles.”
Born in 1905, Severo Ochoa was a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who went to medical school at the University of Madrid. After graduating in 1929, Ochoa spent time in Germany doing research, and then returned to Spain and taught at the University of Madrid’s medical school. In the early 1940s, Ochoa moved to the United States, where he worked with Carl Cori and Gerti Cori at Washington University before joining the faculty of New York University. In 1959, Ochoa was named a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering an enzyme that enables the synthesis of RNA, allowing scientists to recreate the cell process that translates hereditary genes. He died in Madrid in 1993.
Early Life and Career
Born on September 24, 1905, in Luarca, Asturias, Spain, Severo Ochoa was a Nobel Prize-winning scientist known for his research into ribonucleic acid, also known as RNA. He spent his early years in Luarca, where his father was a businessman and lawyer. His father passed away when Ochoa was 7 years old.
Ochoa was educated at a Jesuit school in Malaga before attending the University of Madrid, where he earned a medical degree in 1929. After graduation, Ochoa continued his studies abroad, spending two years in Germany doing research with Otto Meyerhof.
In the early 1930s, Ochoa returned to Spain and joined the faculty of the University of Madrid. The outbreak of the Spanish civil war in 1936 led him to once again seek opportunities elsewhere. Ochoa spent time in Germany and in England before moving to the United States in the early ’40s.
Nobel Prize Winner
In the United States, Severo Ochoa first worked with Carl Cori and Gerty Cori at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. He then began working at New York University’s School of Medicine, beginning in the school’s pharmacology department and joining its biochemistry department in the 1950s. Ochoa became head of the department in 1954.
Over his long career in scientific research, Ochoa explored numerous biochemical questions. He is most famous for his experiments related to RNA. In the ’50s, Ochoa was able to create RNA—important in protein production and the transfer of genetic information—synthetically using a bacterial enzyme called polynucleotide phosphorylase.
This discovery allowed Ochoa to create a virus in a test tube, opening the door to further medical and genetic research. In 1959, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, an honor he shared with fellow biochemist Arthur Kornberg. A former student of Ochoa’s, Kornberg had been able to artificially produce deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. The two were honored for their “discovery of the mechanisms in the biological synthesis” of RNA and DNA, according to the Nobel Prize website.
After retiring from NYU in 1974, Ochoa joined the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology, where he continued his research. In the mid-1980s, he retired from Roche and returned to Spain with his wife, Carmen García Cobian (m. 1931-1993).
Severo Ochoa died in Madrid on November 1, 1993.