UC Berkeley biochemist Heinz Fraenkel-Conrat, pioneer in viral research, has died at the age of 88

By Kathlene Scalise, Public Affairs

BERKELEY--Heinz L. Fraenkel-Conrat, a biochemist and professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, died of pulmonary failure April 10 at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland, Calif. He was 88.

During his distinguished career, Fraenkel-Conrat, a Berkeley resident, made the landmark discovery that genetic information controlling viral reproduction is carried in the nucleic acid core of each virus particle. He has been cited as the first man to take a virus apart, separate its components and put it back together again to reconstitute a live virus.

"He was one of the pioneers in the early days of virology with the tobacco mosaic virus," said his colleague Michael Botchan, a UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology. "He was able to prove without a doubt that the genetic material was ribonucleic acid (RNA). He showed that he could actually reconstitute a complete infectious virus from the protein and RNA."

Colleague Robley Williams, a UC Berkeley biophysicist, determined that the structure of the synthetic tobacco mosaic virus was indistinguishable from the original, and Fraenkel-Conrat himself showed that it was nearly as infectious as the wild virus.

Botchan said the idea that RNA as well as DNA could act as genetic material was still surprising when Fraenkel-Conrat and his colleagues made their discoveries in the 1950s. They published papers on the reconstitution of the active virus in 1955 and on the role of nucleic acid in 1956.

Born in Breslau, Germany, Fraenkel-Conrat received an MD from the University of Breslau in 1933. After Hitler came to power, he left for Scotland, where he earned a PhD in biochemistry at the University of Edinburgh in 1936. He came to the United States in 1936, where he worked as a researcher at various institutions including the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York, UC Berkeley and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Albany, Calif. He joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1952.

In 1960, Fraenkel-Conrat and colleagues announced the complete sequencing of the 158 amino acids of the tobacco mosaic virus protein, the largest protein whose structure was then known. Subsequently he worked on the chemical structure of the viral nucleic acid.

He continued active research all his life, publishing his last paper on viral reconstitution this year with his wife, Dr. Bea Singer, currently a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory biochemist and Fraenkel-Conrat's collaborator of many years. She worked with him from the early days, first showing viral RNA alone was infectious, an important step in elucidating the genetic code.

Fraenkel-Conrat's accomplishments were recognized with numerous awards and honors, including the Albert Lasker Award in Basic Medical Research (1958), the first California Scientist of the Year Award (1958), two Guggenheim fellowships (1963 and 1967) and the Humboldt Senior U.S. Scientist Award (1985). He was the UC Berkeley Faculty Research Lecturer for the university's 100th anniversary - a high honor - and led the centennial academic procession. He was also a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was even granted the pope's Pontifical Medal, said Singer.

A dedicated teacher, Fraenkel-Conrat launched a large molecular biology undergraduate course for non-scientists. He invited undergraduates to consult with him at any time, and his office was often filled with students seeking help.

He also edited or co-edited numerous books, including two textbook series, "Comprehensive Virology" and "The Viruses." His influential book "Design and Function at the Threshold of Life: The Viruses" (1962) was translated into many languages and widely used in classrooms for many years.

Fraenkel-Conrat enjoyed music and played the cello when young. He was a fan of opera and bridge, and a friend of the UC Berkeley library.

In accord with Fraenkel-Conrat's wishes, there will be no memorial service. Friends are invited to donate in his name to UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library.

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