March 2013

Renowned researcher Uhlenbeck wins Lipmann lectureship for work on RNA biochemistry

Olke Uhlenbeck


The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology has awarded Olke Uhlenbeck, an emeritus professor at Northwestern University, the Fritz Lipmann Lectureship. Awarded every two years, this lectureship recognizes investigators who contribute to the conceptual advancements of biochemistry, bioenergetics and molecular biology.

Uhlenbeck has made pivotal contributions to our understanding of RNA biochemistry. He began to define the energetics of RNA secondary structure formation as a postdoc with Nacho Tinoco at the University of California, Berkeley. His recognition that one could systematically study the effects of sequence on duplex stability led, ultimately, to “nearest neighbor” rules. This allows researchers across biology to accurately predict the stability of a given RNA duplex. Uhlenbeck further recognized that the major limitation in understanding RNA was technical — the ability to make and manipulate these molecules. In subsequent work, over the next decades, Uhlenbeck continued to innovate, providing simple and powerful solutions to these problems, solutions that were adopted by virtually every lab studying RNA. At the same time, he carried out seminal work in ribozyme catalysis and tRNA function, culminating in ground-breaking work revealing an unexpected interplay between the amino acid portion of amino-acyl tRNAs and the ribosome during protein synthesis.

In a joint nomination, Daniel Herschlag of Stanford University and Rachel Green of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine lauded Uhlenbeck and said that many consider him “the father of RNA.”

“Olke is a rare scientist who is equally excited about the results of others as he is about his own,” wrote Herschlag and Green in their nomination letter. “He has a remarkable perspective on the scientific enterprise.”

Herschlag notes that “Olke is a person you call when you have a new exciting result — to both have someone to share that enthusiasm and to find out if someone else already found that out and you missed it. The number of phone calls that Olke would get from prominent scientists — at least in the days before email — must must have been remarkable.”

After completing his undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Uhlenbeck pursued a Ph.D. in biophysics at Harvard University in the laboratory of Paul Doty. Thereafter, he joined the faculties of the University of Illinois in 1971 and the University of Colorado in 1986. Currently, he is the Board of Trustees professor of chemistry and molecular biosciences at Northwestern University and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Fritz Lipmann Lectureship provides a plaque, a $3,000 prize, and transportation and expenses to the Experimental Biology 2013 conference in Boston to present a lecture. The lecture will take place at 2:55 p.m. April 23 at the Boston Convention Center.

Mark StewartMark Stewart ( is a Ph.D. student in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s cancer biology program and works in the pathology department.


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