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University of Basel

28 May 2019

Nobel Laureate Werner Arber turns 90

Prof. em. Dr. Werner Arber. (Photo: Matthew Lee)
Prof. em. Dr. Werner Arber. (Photo: Matthew Lee)

Werner Arber, Professor emeritus of Microbiology and Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine in 1978 celebrates his 90th birthday on 3 June 2019. Werner Arber is one of the founding members of the University of Basel’s Biozentrum and former president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. He also made other important contributions to science policy.

Prof. em. Dr. Werner Arber is a pioneer in molecular biological research, investigating the structure and function of DNA and the interaction of genes and proteins. With his discovery of molecular scissors for genes, the so-called bacterial restriction enzymes, he not only laid a foundation for today's molecular biology, but also paved the way for various research areas at the Biozentrum. This contributed greatly to the internationally renowned reputation of the institute. In 1978, Werner Arber was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine together with the Americans Daniel Nathans and Hamilton Smith.

Discovery of a molecular scissor for genes

In the 1960s, Werner Arber was able to prove that molecular scissors in bacteria, so-called restriction enzymes, recognize foreign DNA molecules and cut them at certain points. In bacteria, these enzymes help e.g. to defend viral infections, by destroying the genetic material into harmless fragments.

Later, the microbiologist also discovered that bacteria have a protective mechanism that prevents the cell's own DNA from being destroyed. For example, specific enzymes modify their own genetic material by attaching certain chemical groups, thereby protecting it from being accessed by restriction enzymes.

These bacterial tools – hundreds have since been discovered – have made it possible to investigate individual genes and their function and recombine selected DNA segments for the first time. These important findings, which were honored by the Nobel Prize Committee, led to a leap in genetic engineering research and a better understanding of the molecular evolution of organisms.

Contributions to science community

Werner Arber was born in 1929 in Gränichen in the canton of Aargau, Switzerland. He studied chemistry and physics at ETH Zurich and received his PhD from the University of Geneva in 1958. After conducting research at the University of South California in Los Angeles, USA, he was appointed group leader at the University of Geneva in 1960 and promoted to Professor of Molecular Genetics in 1965.

From 1971 to 1996, Werner Arber was Professor of Molecular Microbiology at the Biozentrum, University of Basel. Between 1986 and 1988 he was also president of the University of Basel. For many years, he was a member and vice president of the Swiss Science Council and from 1996 to 1999 president of the International Council of Sciences ICSU.

Since 1981, Werner Arber is member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, of which he was also its president from 2011 to 2017. As a Protestant-Reformed Christian, Werner Arber is thus the first president since the founding of the Academy more than 400 years ago not to belong to the Roman Catholic Church. On June 3, 2019, Werner Arber turns 90 years old.

The 90th birthday of Prof. Werner Arber will be celebrated by the Biozentrum on August 28, 2019, at 4pm with a scientific symposium.

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