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Thomas Steitz Biologist and X-Ray Crystallographer, Dies at 78

Thomas Steitz, who determined the atomic structure of ribosome by using X-ray crystallography, died of pancreatic cancer on Tuesday at age 78. Thomas Cech, a chemist at the University of Colorado, told The New York Times that Steitz was the master of X-ray crystallography in the current era.

He was born in 1940 spent his entire childhood at Wisconsin, where he later studied chemistry at Lawrence College and graduated in 1962. He then went to Harvard University, and it was there, in 1963, that he first learned of X-ray crystallography, from a lecture by Max Perutz, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1962 with John Cowdery Kendrew for X-ray crystallography on proteins. In 1966, Steitz graduated from Harvard with a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology and spent there till the next year as a postdoc. He met his wife Joan Steitz at the Harvard University, who is a biochemist biophysicist at Yale and the recipient of the Lasker special achievement award this year. The couple was addressed as one of the power couples of science in a 2015 Hartford-Courant article.

From 1967 to 1970, Steitz was a postdoc at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England. After leaving the MRC, the Steitzes searched for universities that would hire them both. He rejected a job offer at the University of California, Berkeley, after Steitz inquired about an assistant professorship and a biochemistry chairman responded by saying, “All our wives like being research associates,” The Times reports. Instead, they went to Yale, which offered them the positions which they wanted. It was there, in the year 2000, that Steitz made his big breakthrough.

Subsequent to figuring out the ribosome structure, looking at how antibiotics bind to ribosomes was the next step which he wanted to discover, the Times reports. That discovery, in turn, led to the development of improved antibiotics that could be effective when infections would have turned ineffective or resistant to other drugs.

Steitz shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in chemistry with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology and Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, who independently mapped the ribosome structure.

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