Of Spanish origin, the small and idyllic town of Luarca (Asturias) was the birthplace of one of the most influential and decisive figures in the history of biochemistry: Severo Ochoa de Albornoz. He was born on September 24, 1905, and died on November 1, 1993, but not before having traveled a crucial and key path for modern molecular biology.
Ochoa began his studies in Malaga, where he moved with his family in 1912. His interest in biology is largely due to his reading of the publications of the great Spanish neurologist Santiago Ramón y Cajal. In Madrid he studied medicine and graduated in 1929 from the Complutense University of Madrid, obtaining his doctorate shortly after, although he never practiced as a doctor. During his stay in Madrid he stayed at the Residencia de Estudiantes in 1927, and lived with great intellectuals and artists of the time, such as Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí, among others.
Thanks to his publication on creatinine (an organic compound generated from the breakdown of creatine that is discarded by metabolism), in 1929 he was invited to join the research team in the laboratory of the German physiologist Otto Meyerhof at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Biology, now the world-renowned Max Planck Institute in Berlin.
In 1930, Severo Ochoa returned to Madrid to finish his doctoral thesis. A year later, in 1931, he married Carmen García Cobián, in 1931, he married Carmen García Cobián and was appointed assistant professor to the Spanish physician and politician Juan Negrín, who would end up being his main support before the Junta de Ampliación de Estudios to complete his postdoctoral training. In the course of his research, Severo Ochoa spent a period at the London National Institute for Medical Researchwhere worked with the English physiologist Sir Henry Dale on the study of vitamin B1, and in 1932 he carried out his first major studies on enzymology (a biochemical discipline that focuses on the study and characterization of enzymes) at the National Institute for Medical Research in London. Likewise, in 1935 he was invited by Professor Carlos Jiménez Díaz to assume the direction of the Physiology Department of the Institute of Medical Research of the University City of Madrid.
With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Severo Ochoa and his wife had to move to a more favorable place for their research work. Germany would be the first destination chosen by the couple. There, Ochoa was appointed visiting research assistant at the Meyerhof Laboratory in Heidelberg, where he studied the enzymes of certain steps of glycolysis (metabolic pathway by which cells oxidize glucose for energy) and fermentations. But his stay in Germany was short-lived. When the Nazis came to power, the scientist decided to leave. In 1937, the Ochoas moved to Plymouth (England) where, at the Rudolph Peters Laboratory of the University of Oxford, the scientist devoted himself to the study of the biological function of thiamine (vitamin B1) and other enzymatic aspects of oxidative metabolism. (vitamin B1) and other enzymatic aspects of oxidative metabolism.
By the outbreak of World War II, Severo Ochoa and his wife were forced to cross the Atlantic and emigrate to the United States. Ochoa first worked in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Washington School of Medicine and later at New York University, where he would remain for most of his life and where most of his scientific discoveries would take place. Encouraged by his wife, Ochoa began his own research while working as a research associate at the School of Medicine. At that time he began to consider the possibility of applying for U.S. citizenship, convinced of the employment benefits that such a decision could bring him. Finally, in 1956, the couple was granted U.S. citizenship, although Severo was always careful to state that he considered himself “a scientific exile, not a political one”.
In 1955, Severo Ochoa discovered and isolated an enzyme from a bacterial cell of Escherichia coli which he called polynucleotide phosphorylase, and which would later become known as RNA polymerase (a set of enzymes involved in the synthesis of messenger RNA or transcription of RNA). (a set of enzymes involved in the synthesis of messenger RNA or DNA transcription). A year later, the American biochemist and disciple of Severo Ochoa, Arthur Kornberg, demonstrated that DNA synthesis also requires another polymerase enzyme that is specific for this chain. Thanks to all these findings, both scientists received and shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1959.
In 1971 he was appointed director of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology of the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. In the 1980s, the award-winning scientist returned to Spain to lead a research group on protein biosynthesis at the Institute of Molecular Biology in Madrid, while at the same time leading another team at the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology in New Jersey (USA).
At the end of his life, in June 1993, Severo Ochoa presented his biography in Madrid, entitled The thrill of discovery, written by journalist Mariano Gómez-Santos, and shortly afterwards, in November of that same year, one of the most important Spanish scientists of all time died in Madrid of pneumonia at the age of 88.
Thanks to his great contribution, deservedly recognized, today we can better understand molecular biology and apply it to the treatment of diseases. Undoubtedly, it is a great fortune for Spain and the scientific world to have had his figure, his talent and his eagerness for research.
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