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Oration honouring Sidney Altman

Of all the questions that have plagued scientists and philosophers, none has proven so controversial, so perplexing as this: which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Contemplating the riddle caused no less a scholar than Aristotle to throw up his hands in exasperation: both the bird and egg must have always existed, he concluded.

But the man before us, Nobel laureate Sidney Altman, not only provided an answer to this enigma but, in doing so, realized Plutarch's prophecy that the answer to the riddle could explain the creation of the world.

There is no hyperbole in these statements, Mr. Vice-Chancellor. Indeed, Sidney Altman did untangle the mysteries of creation. Quite simply, he discovered that RNA could both carry genetic information and also act as an enzyme, as a catalyst for genetic replication.

This discovery shook the very foundations of molecular biology; until Sidney Altman's discovery, it was accepted that only proteins could be enzymes and only nucleic acids, RNA and DNA, could carry genetic information.

This separation of functions formed an important aspect of what was known as the Central Dogma of molecular biology, that genetic information flows in one direction only – DNA makes RNA, RNA makes protein, and proteins make us. The fact that only proteins could be enzymes, and that enzymes are needed to make nucleic acids, while nucleic acids are needed to make enzymes, presented evolutionary biologists with a classic chicken and egg dilemma. How could enzymes have arisen without the nucleic acids to encode them, and how could nucleic acids arise without the enzymes to assemble and copy them?

Sidney Altman solved the riddle. He and another scientist, Thomas Cech, independently and rather by accident discovered that RNA could do double duty; it could carry genetic information AND it could act as a catalyst.

But, here our story takes a dark turn. While we might expect that Sydney Altman would be celebrated for his discovery, instead he was ridiculed and ostracized by the scientific community. His discovery seemed too preposterous. It flew in the face of what every scientist knew about genes. It upset the Central Dogma of molecular biology.

This was a difficult time for Sidney Altman. He spent years repeating and repeating his experiments. His results were unchanged, but no one would publish them. Faced with funding cuts and having to close his lab, it took almost five years before his results were published and he was welcomed back into the scientific community.

How did Sidney Altman persevere in the face of skepticism and isolation by his peers? His resolve is credited in equal parts to both nature and nurture.

Apropos of nature's contribution to Sidney Altman's character, consider his parents. Both had left religious persecution to immigrate to Canada. His mother, Ray, was 18, one of 11 children living near the Russian-Polish border, when she and her older sister came to Canada. She promptly enrolled in elementary school to learn English. Her teachers encouraged her to go on and study nursing, but instead she went to work in the textile factories in Montreal, saving enough money to bring the rest of her family to Canada.

Sidney's father had immigrated to Montreal from the Ukraine a few years earlier. They met in Montreal, married and created a home where Sidney acquired his lifelong love of books.

And, apropos of nurture's contribution to Sidney Altman's character, consider that he grew up in Montreal in the late 1940s and '50s, a city known at the time for its scrappiness: young Altman, like other boys in his neighbourhood, settled their disagreements with fisticuffs in the street.
These qualities, the hard work and determination of his parents, and the toughness of the streets of Montreal, created in Sidney Altman the fortitude to persevere until his results were published.

And, in 1989 came the ultimate vindication: Sidney Altman was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the enzymatic properties of RNA. Once it was accepted that RNA could act as a catalyst, the blinders came off: scientists found other examples of enzymatic RNA. They envisioned a world at the beginning of evolution that contained only RNA molecules that could catalyze their own synthesis, essentially a new model of creation. Scientists now refer to this as the RNA world.

Today we acknowledge Sidney Altman's contributions to science and we applaud the resolute persistence that made him attend to what Nature was telling him in his laboratory experiments.

We are proud that, while establishing a career at Yale University where he is now the Sterling Professor of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, he has never given up his Canadian citizenship, that he thinks that Montreal is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and of course, that every year he cheers for his home team, the Montreal Canadiens.

Mr. Vice-Chancellor, to Sidney Altman, who proved Aristotle right by discovering that RNA could be both the catalyst and the blueprint, both the chicken and the egg, and in doing so gave us a picture of the world at the brink of creation, I ask that you confer the degree of doctor of science, honoris causa.

Dale Foster
University orator