Chargaff, Pioneer and Critic of Biotech,
Dies at Age 96

Erwin Chargaff, Pioneer of DNA Research, Dies at 96
By Kathleen McGowan, a GenomeWeb staff reporter

NEW YORK, July 1 - Erwin Chargaff, the renowned biochemist whose insights
led to the discovery that DNA was composed of complementary base pairs,
died on June 20 in New York. He was 96.

Chargaff began studying DNA in 1944 after Oswald Avery identified the
molecule as the basis of heredity. In 1950, he determined that the amounts
of adenine and thymine in DNA were roughly the same, as were the amounts of
cytosine and guanine.

This principle, which became known as "Chargaff's rules," placed him among
the pioneers of genetic science.

With bitter suspicions about the motivations of science and scientists and
a dark eloquence rare among molecular biologists, Chargaff became a sharp
critic of the accelerating pace of biotechnology.

"We manipulate nature as if we were stuffing an Alsatian goose," he once
said. "We create new forms of energy; we make new elements; we kill crops;
we wash brains. I can hear them in the dark sharpening their lasers."

Born in 1905 in Czernowitz, Austria, Chargaff first studied chemistry at
the University of Vienna, arriving at Columbia as a biochemist in 1935.
>From 1970 to 1974 he chaired the department of biochemistry, eventually
becoming professor emeritus. He retired in 1992.

His honors include the Pasteur Medal, which he won in 1949, and the
National Medal of Science, awarded to him in 1974.

Chargaff married in 1928 and had one son, who survives him.

His skeptical nature and biting wit relegated Chargaff to outsider status
in his later career, a role he did not seem to mind.

"The natural sciences have become part of the market economy," he told
interviewers with Aventis' newsletter in 2001. "They have assumed all of
the characteristics of capitalism, which can only exist if it is constantly
expanding and renewing itself. The incessant pressure for innovation, the
feeling that nothing is good enough and has to be constantly improved, is a




Erwin Chargaff, an eminent geneticist who is sometimes called the father of
modern microbiology, commented:

The principle question to be answered is whether we have the right to put
an additional fearful load on generations not yet born. I use the adjective
'additional' in view of the unresolved and equally fearful problem of the
disposal of nuclear waste. Our time is cursed with the necessity for feeble
men, masquerading as experts, to make enormously far-reaching decisions. Is
there anything more far-reaching than the creation of forms of life?

You can stop splitting the atom; you can stop visiting the moon; you can
using aerosals; you may even decide not to kill entire populations by the
use of a few bombs. But you cannot recall a new form of life. Once you have
constructed a viable E. coli cell carry a plasmid DNA into which a piece of
eukaryotic DNA has been spliced, it will survive you and your children and
your children's children. An irreversible attack on the biosphere is
something so unheard-of, so unthinkable to previous generations, that I
could only wish that mine had not been guilty of it.

Heraclitean Fire Sketches from: Sketches from a Life before Nature
Erwin Chargaff

Hardcover, 252pp.
ISBN: 0874700299
Publisher: Rockefeller University Press
Pub. Date: January 1978

William F. Wathen, DMD

* "I have the feeling that science has transgressed a barrier that should
have remained inviolate."
Dr Erwin Chargoff, eminent biochemist, often referred to as the father of
molecular biology

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