Severo Ochoa, the Chemistry of Life

We are, in essence, proteins; and since proteins are formed through chemical reactions, all living beings have an inevitable chemical base. And the fact that we know this today is mainly thanks to a Spanish biochemist, Severo Ochoa (1905-1993), who initiated the solving of the RNA puzzle and laid the foundations for the deciphering of the genetic code. Thanks to him we know that this is universal for all living beings, and also that it can be modified.

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Explaining the genetic code at the University of New York (1967) / Credit: Severo Ochoa Foundation

Severo Ochoa arrived in Madrid in 1922 to study medicine, largely motivated by his deep admiration for physician Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who was at that time the only Spanish scientist who had won the Nobel Prize. However, he never practiced medicine, nor did he end up working with Ramón y Cajal. His interest quickly turned to biology, likely inspired by his having met Juan Negrín, Professor of Physiology, who suggested that Ochoa work in his laboratory as a training instructor while he finished his degree.

Thus he was living in a cultural institution called Residencia de Estudiantes (“Student Residence”, in Spanish) surrounded by some of the great intellectuals and artists of that time, such as writer Federico Garcia Lorca, painter Salvador Dalí and filmmaker Luis Buñuel. After spending only a little time at the physiology laboratory, Ochoa won a scholarship to continue his studies at the University of Glasgow (UK), at a time in which it was not common for a student to travel the world. That stay in Scotland put him in contact with the European scientific community and prompted him to publish, on his return, his studies on creatinine in urine in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. By 1928 Severo Ochoa had begun his career as a researcher with an international publication, and he had still not even graduated.

A wandering scientist

A year later, now with a medical degree in hand, he decided to continue his research career. He won another scholarship to spend two years at the Institute of Biology of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, today the Max Planck Society, in Berlin (Germany). There he met leading scientists, such as Nobel Laureates Otto Fritz Meyerhof and Otto Heinrich Warburg. During the time he spent abroad he came into contact with different ideas that would help him to position himself at the forefront of a new branch of science, biochemistry.

Installed back in Spain as an assistant professor, he continued travelling and collaborating with other research centers in Europe. In London he began studying an enzyme present in vitamin B1, opening a line of research that would eventually win him nothing less than the Nobel Prize. In those years, the political situation in Spain and Europe was becoming very unstable. First, in 1936 the Spanish Civil War broke out, which led him to continue his studies in Germany, but he did not stay there long either. After spending some years at Oxford, the start of the Second World War prompted Severo Ochoa to emigrate to the US with his wife in 1941.

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Severo Ochoa checking data in the New York City Medical Center (1955) / Credit: Severo Ochoa Foundation

At the end of the war, a revolution in Biochemistry was brewing at the molecular level. In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick set the scientific world on fire by proposing a model in the shape of the double helix that explained the molecular structure of DNA. The chemistry of life became a scientific trend, a timely chance for Ochoa, who was in a privileged position as researcher in the New York University School of Medicine.

The Rosetta Stone of Genetics

His great achievement, for which he won the Nobel Prize, came in 1955, shortly before obtaining US citizenship. From the isolation of an enzyme from the bacterium Escherichia coli, he was able to synthesize RNA in the laboratory thanks to an appropriate substrate of nucleotide (the different letters that make up DNA and RNA, that is, their elementary components). In this way he took the first step toward reading the genetic code, whose complete deciphering other researchers would finish years later.

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Ochoa congratulated by his team after receiving the Nobel Prize (1959) / Credit: New York University

Having set this precedent, his research ambitions did not allow him to stop, even when he was informed at his lab at New York University that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in 1959, achieving the same recognition as his admired Ramón y Cajal (both remain today the only two Spanish scientists who have won the prize from the Swedish Academy). Thereafter, Ochoa delved into the replication mechanisms of the viruses that have RNA as genetic material, describing the key stages of the process; he also worked on uncovering the mechanisms of protein synthesis.

In the last years of his career, he divided his research activities between the US and Spain, where in 1971 he created the Centre for Molecular Biology, which bears his name; he was honorary president until his death. Although he retired from New York University in 1975, Ochoa never set science aside. Until 1985, he directed two research groups, one in Madrid and one in New Jersey.

The Emotion of Discovery

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Credit: US Postal Service

Ochoa is remembered as a world-renowned scientist. In the United States, his adopted country, he received the National Medal of Science in 1979. Even in 2011, the Postal Service issued a set of stamps of major US scientists, among which is Ochoa. In Spain, his country of birth, the label “Severo Ochoa” is awarded to research centers of the higher level.

In 1986, he lost his wife, Carmen Garcia Cobián, his great love and his great support throughout his career, which plunged Ochoa into a deep melancholy. After this, he did not publish any more scientific work, putting an end to his career. In June 1993, he released a short autobiography of his life, which he titled “The Emotion of Discovery”, five months before his death at the age of 88. His attitude towards science and life was condensed in that book, as well as in the most famous statement that Ochoa made to the press:

“Life is explained almost, if not entirely, in chemical terms. Love is physics and chemistry.

By Andrea Arnal for Ventana al Conocimiento

@AndreaArnal