Uolter Gilbert

Uolter Gilbert

Date of Birth: 21.03.1932
Country: USA

Biography of Walter Gilbert

Walter Gilbert is an American physicist, biochemist, and molecular biologist, and a Nobel laureate in Chemistry. He was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to parents Richard Gilbert, an economist, and Emma Gilbert, a child psychologist. Gilbert showed an interest in scientific activity from a young age and received his primary education at home from his mother. When he was seven years old, his family moved to Washington, D.C., where his father worked for the Office of Price Administration during World War II. Gilbert attended public schools in Washington and later Sidwell Friends School.

Upon graduating from high school in 1949, Gilbert enrolled at Harvard University, specializing mainly in physics. He completed his undergraduate studies with distinction in 1953 and married poetess Celia Stone in the same year. They have two children together. Gilbert stayed at Harvard University to pursue his doctoral studies in physics and obtained his master's degree in 1954. He then moved to the University of Cambridge in England, where he worked as a doctoral candidate under the guidance of Abdus Salam, focusing on mathematical formulas for predicting the scattering of elementary particles.

In Cambridge, Gilbert met James D. Watson and Francis Crick, who were conducting research on the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) - the cellular carrier of genetic information for protein synthesis. Inspired by Watson and Crick's work, Gilbert delved into the field of molecular biology. In 1957, he earned his doctorate in mathematics and returned to Harvard, where he conducted postdoctoral research for a year and served as a scientific assistant to physicist Julius S. Schwinger for another year. In 1959, he was appointed as an assistant professor at the Department of Physics at Harvard University.

In 1960, James Watson joined Harvard and rekindled his friendship with Gilbert. Watson was interested in understanding the processes that link specific DNA nucleotide sequences to protein synthesis encoded by those sequences. Gilbert eagerly took on the challenge of helping Watson isolate messenger RNA (mRNA) and embarked on extensive research in molecular biology. In 1964, Gilbert left the Department of Physics and became an adjunct professor at the Department of Biophysics. Alongside his colleague Benno Muller-Hill, Gilbert focused on addressing the question posed by Francois Jacob and Jacques Monod. They aimed to investigate why DNA sequences do not continually produce encoded proteins.

Using Escherichia coli bacteria, Gilbert and Muller-Hill began studying this problem. E. coli synthesize a series of proteins that break down lactose. Protein synthesis is initiated by the lac operon in the presence of lactose, while a repressor protein inhibits the lac operon in its absence. By 1966, both researchers had isolated the repressor and, over the next four years, Gilbert determined the structure and location of the operator - the site to which the repressor binds on the DNA helix. It became clear that the nucleotide sequence of the operator region of DNA plays a key role in the process of repressor recognition and binding. In 1973, Gilbert and Allan Maxam used Frederick Sanger's methods to determine the sequence of the lac operator. Two years later, Gilbert started studying the specific nucleotides of the lac operator that are crucial for binding, following the suggestion of visiting Soviet scientist Andrei Mirzabekov.

Gilbert and Maxam employed Mirzabekov's method to study the lac operon, isolating DNA fragments of the same length using gel electrophoresis. This technique allowed them to separate fragments with only one nucleotide difference in length, and radioactively labeled fragments left dark spots on photographic paper. By 1977, Gilbert and his colleague determined the complete nucleotide sequence of the protein they were investigating. Meanwhile, another method for determining sequence was developed by Sanger, and both methods became fundamental in the emerging field of recombinant DNA technology or genetic engineering. Utilizing his expertise, Gilbert co-founded the company Biogen in 1978, which specialized in genetic engineering. In 1982, after being elected as Biogen's chairman, Gilbert left Harvard University but returned in late 1984 after leaving the company. At Harvard, he continued his research on gene structure and protein synthesis in recombinant organisms.

In 1980, Gilbert, along with Sanger and Paul Berg, was awarded half of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry "for their contributions concerning the determination of base sequences in nucleic acids." The other half of the prize was awarded to Paul Berg for similar research. Their work was recognized for not only advancing fundamental knowledge but also for the practical applications, such as the production of human hormones using bacteria. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Gilbert has received numerous other accolades, including the National Academy of Sciences' Steel Foundation Prize in Molecular Biology (1968), the V.D. Mattia Award from the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology (1976), the Louis and Bertie Friedman Prize from the New York Academy of Sciences (1977), the Louise Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University (1979), the annual Gairdner Foundation Award (1979), the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research (1979), and the Herbert A. Sober Memorial Award from the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (1980). He has been honored with honorary scientific degrees from the University of Chicago, Columbia University, and the University of Rochester. Gilbert is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and the American Physical Society.