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1934: The Man Who Discovered Retroviral RNA Is Born

Howard Temin held firm to his ground-breaking theory as the scientific world howled. He was awarded the Nobel in 1975

David Green
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As his peers sneered, Howard Temin stuck to his theory that RNA could be coded into DNA. He won a Nobel for it.Credit: Nobel Prize Org.
David Green

December 10, 1934, is the birthdate of Howard Martin Temin, the biologist who came up with the theory that RNA from a virus could replicate itself into the DNA of a host organism. Temin held firm with this conviction even as many of his peers and colleagues scoffed, and was vindicated.

For his discovery, Temin shared the 1975 Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology.

Howard Martin Temin was the son of a middle-class Jewish family from Philadelphia. His father, Henry Temin, was a lawyer, and his mother, Annette Lehman Temin, was active on a voluntary basis in a number of educational initiatives in the city.

Howard attended Philadelphia’s Central High School, the magnet school for outstanding boys, and attended Swarthmore College, where his graduating class yearbook predicted he would be “one of the future giants in experimental biology.”

In 1959, Temin earned his doctorate at California Institute of Technology, where one of his colleagues in studying the connection between viruses and cancer was Renatto Delbecco, who would later share the Nobel with him and with David Baltimore. From there he went to the University of Wisconsin, where he worked until his death, in 1994.

Waiter, there's a sump in my tissue culture

Temin’s first lab in Wisconsin was in the basement of the medical school, where, he recalled in his Nobel Prize autobiographical essay, he had “a sump in my tissue culture lab and […] steam pipes for the entire building in my biochemistry lab.”

It was at Wisconsin that Temin began theorizing that RNA could perpetuate itself by replicating into the DNA of a healthy cell, an idea that many of his peers scoffed at.

One of the reasons for resistance to his theory was that it seemed to contradict what had come to be referred to as the “central dogma” of Francis Crick regarding the transfer of genetic information within an organism. Crick said that information went only in one direction: “DNA makes RNA makes protein,” he ruled, and the reverse was not possible.

Only when Temin – and also David Baltimore, who made the same discovery independently, also in 1970 – isolated and identified reverse transcriptase, the enzyme that actually does the work of turning RNA into double-stranded DNA, did other scientists accept that he had been right all along.

Subsequent research did not find many cancers to be caused by viruses (as opposed to genetic mutations or heredity), so the application of this new knowledge was initially limited. But the discovery of transcriptase became keenly relevant a decade later, when AIDS became known in the West.

Viruses whose genomes are copied into the host's DNA are called retroviruses.
AIDS turned out to be caused by a retrovirus -- HIV -- which relies on reverse transcriptase to replicate its genome.

Pesky wellwishers

Temin was extremely dedicated to his work – on the day he was informed that he was to receive the Nobel Prize, a colleague recalled after his death, he expressed frustration that all the attention he was receiving was keeping him from his research. Yet he was far from lacking in other interests.

At Wisconsin, he was politically outspoken as an anti-war activist, and, testified a colleague, very well informed about nuclear weapons and military strategy. Another colleague observed in an essay about Temin that he attended Shabbat services each week, and had a large Jewish library at home. (His mother, Annette Temin, had been an active member of Hadassah and belonged to the board of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, outside Philadelphia.)

The year after he won the Nobel, in 1976, Temin visited the Soviet Union, carrying forbidden Hebrew books with him to give to Jews he met with. He also met with dissident scientist Andrei Sakharov, taking out a message from him when he departed.

Temin was also very health-conscious, walking or bicycling almost everywhere he could, and an outspoken opponent of smoking, to the extent that, in December 1975, after receiving his Nobel medal from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, he turned to the audience and scolded members who were smoking even as he was being honored for his work in fighting cancer.

It was therefore bitterly ironic that Temin was killed by lung cancer – an adenocarcinoma not related to cigarette smoke – and died at the age of 59, on February 9, 1994. He was survived by his wife, Rayla Greenberg Temin, also a geneticist at the University of Wisconsin, and two daughters, Sarah and Miriam.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen