Severo Ochoa was born in Luarca, Spain, and was educated at the University of Madrid, where he received his M.D. in 1929. He spent the next 13 years in a total of 12 different laboratories (nine in Europe and three in the United States), partly because he sought out laboratories at the frontier of physiology and medicine and partly because of social and political turbulence in Europe. He worked with Otto Meyerhof at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Heidelberg, Germany, Harold W. Dudley and Henry Dale at the National Institute for Medical Research in London, and R. A. Peters at the Plymouth Marine Biological Laboratory in Plymouth, United Kingdom. Ochoa also briefly held positions at the University of Madrid (1931) and the Institute for Medical Research in Madrid (1934–1935).
In 1941, Ochoa left Europe for the United States and became a professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1954, he joined the New York University College of Medicine as director of the Department of Biochemistry and remained there until retiring in 1974. During his time at New York University, he also served as president of the American Society of Biological Chemists (1958).
Between 1974 and 1985, Ochoa was associated with the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology in Nutley, New Jersey. After leaving Roche he taught at the Autonomous University of Madrid, which named the Center of Molecular Biology in his honor. Ochoa also received the Neuberg Medal in Biochemistry, the Medal of the Société de Chimie Biologique, and the Borden Award in the Medical Sciences. He was a member of several learned societies in the United States, Germany, Japan, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile and was president of the International Union of Biochemistry and a member of the Journal of Biological Chemistry editorial board.
The bulk of Ochoa's work focused on enzymatic processes in biological energy transfer, especially oxidative phosphorylation and carbon dioxide utilization. In 1955, Ochoa discovered polynucleotide phosphorylase, a bacterial enzyme that synthesizes RNA in vitro. Although the in vivo function of this enzyme was subsequently determined to be RNA degradation rather than synthesis, the enzyme was useful in unraveling the genetic code, and it allowed scientists to better understand how genetic information is translated. For that work Ochoa received the 1959 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine along with Arthur Kornberg. Ochoa's work on the citric acid cycle was featured as a Journal of Biological Chemistry Classic (1).
1. Kresge, N., Simoni, R. D., and Hill, R. L. (2005) Severo Ochoa's contributions to the citric acid cycle. J. Biol. Chem. 280 (11).