September 2011

Nathan Sharon (1925—2011)


retro2_Nathan-SharonNathan Sharon, a lifelong ambassador for science and an accomplished glycoscientist, died June 17. He was 85.

Sharon was born in 1925 in what was then Poland and immigrated to Israel (then the British Mandate for Palestine) in 1934 at the age of 8. As a young man, he became involved in the military struggle for Israeli independence and during Israel’s War of Independence served in the science corps of the Israel Defense Forces. He received his baccalaureate and doctoral degrees in chemistry from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and joined the faculty of Ephraim Katzir’s biophysics department at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot in 1954. He rose through the academic ranks and remained there for his entire career.

Sharon started out at the Weizmann working on bacterial polypeptides. In 1956, he traveled to Harvard University to learn more about peptide biosynthesis from Fritz Lippmann, but while there he consulted with Roger W. Jeanloz about a polysaccharide he discovered in a Bacillus (no polysaccharides of Bacillus were known at the time). Jeanloz encouraged him to publish his findings in Nature and invited him to spend an extra year in Boston to characterize the polysaccharide chemically. This resulted not only in the discovery of the novel bacterial sugar bacillosamine (2,4-diamino-2,4,6-trideoxyglucose, which recently has been implicated as the link in N-linked glycosylation of bacterial proteins), but it was also the beginning of Sharon’s career in complex carbohydrates.  

Perhaps less well known to the glyco community is work he did with Daniel E. Koshland Jr. at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y. The paper that resulted in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences had an unusual title: “Purified muscle proteins and the walking rate of ants.” Not exactly glycobiology! The study was to test the Crozier hypothesis, first postulated in 1924 in the Journal of General Physiology. William J. Crozier suggested that in specific physiological processes a single enzymatic reaction served as the rate-determining step and that this control was exerted over a sufficiently broad temperature range to allow an assessment of the activation energy of the reaction. Sharon and Koshland evaluated this directly using purified myosin as well as live ants and measuring temperature effects on the rate of ATP hydrolysis compared with the rate of ant walking. Although this study had nothing to do with carbohydrates, it can be reasoned that Sharon appreciated Koshland’s creativity, a trait he too demonstrated as he subsequently asked (and answered) many key questions in the saccharide field.



Broad interests in natural phenomena were a hallmark of Sharon, and he was drawn to an old finding related to the aggregation of cells. The first observations that some naturally occurring molecules (agglutinins) could cause specific types of cells to aggregate date to the late 19th century. This phenomenon remained for decades in the category of “interesting observations,” with little known about the nature of the interacting species, the mechanism involved or the underlying basis for the apparent specificity. Unraveling this puzzle became Nathan’s lifework. He brought lectins to the limelight, defined the molecular nature of the saccharide recognition and served as a founding father for the general area of cell-cell recognition.

During his distinguished career at the Weizmann, in addition to maintaining a world-class research program (400 published papers plus many books authored or edited, several of which are considered classics), he was active in administrative affairs (department chairman, dean), trained numerous now-successful investigators and brought science alive to the general public through his work as science editor of the Haaretz newspaper and as editor for a regular radio broadcast on modern science. Among his numerous awards are the Israel Prize for biochemistry (1994), the Rosalind Kornfeld award for lifetime service to glycobiology and an honorary doctorate from the University of Paris. 

To Sharon, science was personal. His travels took him all over the world not only to be a laboratory guest or attend conferences but also to get to know glycoscientists. Sharon was truly an unofficial worldwide ambassador for glycoscience, and those who knew him always will remember his personal warmth and graciousness.

A note from Eugene A. Davidson: I first met Nathan when he visited the laboratory of professor Karl Meyer at Columbia University, where I was a graduate student, in 1953 or thereabouts. He was then, as always, personally engaging and enthusiastic about science, quizzing me in detail about my work. 

retro_2_author_Gene-DavidsonEugene A. Davidson ( is a professor emeritus in the department of biochemistry and molecular and cell biology at the Georgetown University School of Medicine.



retro2_author_Eve-Ida-Barak-Eve Ida Barak ( is a former (now retired) program director for cellular biosciences at the National Science Foundation.

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