From medicine to polyamines

Herb Tabor passes another milestone

Herb Tabor

Cover of the Jan. 3, 2014, issue of The Journal of Biological ChemistryFor those scientists who have submitted their research manuscripts to The Journal of Biological Chemistry over the past 50 years (and even those who haven’t), Herbert Tabor is nothing less than a living legend.
An investigator at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, Tabor, now 95 years old, has been on the journal’s masthead since 1961. He was first an editorial board member, then an associate editor and then, from 1971 to 2010, the editor in chief. Since 2011, he has served as co-editor.
As if that tenure is not amazing enough, you also should note that Tabor’s first JBC paper was published in 1943! And just this past fall, he marked a milestone of sorts by having a new paper accepted 70 years after his first. (Though, to his credit, he published many in the interim.)

E. colipolyamine mutant figure
Glutamic acid, polyamines and gadA-gadB are required for acid survival of an E. coli polyamine mutant. (For full description, see Chattopadhyay and Tabor.)

Tabor’s scientific contributions to the fields of pharmacology and biochemistry are substantial. Here is how the legend began. A native of New York City, Tabor completed undergraduate studies in biochemical science and earned his medical degree from Harvard University. While in medical school, he developed a strong interest in biochemistry disciplines under the guidance and encouragement of several of his professors. In 1943, Tabor published his very first article in the JBC, describing the ionization constant of magnesium phosphate.
After his medical training, Tabor entered the U.S. Public Health Service and, after a short period as a medical officer on trans-Atlantic convoys, started working closely with Sanford Rosenthal at the National Institutes of Health, where they investigated electrolyte changes in burns and traumatic shock and studied the possible therapeutic use of saline as a replacement for plasma. In an interview with the Chemical Heritage Foundation, sponsored by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the 1990s, Tabor recalled that the research was potentially very beneficial to U.S. soldiers during World War II because the supply of plasma was extremely limited.
Tabor gradually turned his research focus to polyamine biosynthesis, the enzymes and genes involved in regulatory mechanisms, and their important physiological functions. By creating null mutants of Escherichia coli and Saccharomyces cerevisiae lacking the capability to produce amines, Tabor and colleagues were able to study the biological effects of amine deprivation.

Celia and Herbert Tabor
Herbert and Celia Tabor

We would be remiss to not mention that almost all of Tabor’s polyamine work was done in close collaboration with his wife. Celia Tabor was herself a trailblazer and leader: she was the first female intern in internal medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital in 1944, and she rose to the rank of captain in the U.S. Public Health Service. The couple collaborated for more than 50 years. Celia Tabor died in late 2012.
With regard to the work recently published in the JBC, Tabor’s group was interested in the genes in E. coli responsible for glutamate-dependent acid resistance system, or GDAR, and studied in detail the critical importance of polyamines in this system.
GDAR is a critical protective mechanism for the bacteria to survive while passing through the acidic environment of the stomach, and polyamines are a unique protector for E. coli fighting against acid stress, specifically by increasing the synthesis of glutamate decarboxylase.
“All manuscripts submitted to JBC are reviewed and scrutinized carefully, including those from editors and associate editors,” said F. Peter Guengerich of Vanderbilt University, the JBC associate editor who oversaw the review of Tabor’s latest paper. “I was pleased that Herb Tabor’s work reviewed very favorably, and I feel privileged to have been involved in this particular decision. It is truly remarkable to have a career spanning seven decades. Of course, we will be expecting more to come!”
Tabor’s creativity, diligence and humility undoubtedly make him a role model for young and aspiring scientists. And we know his legend will continue.

Shirley TanShirley H. Tan ( is a postdoctoral research fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.