Posted in Science Stories

Hildegard Lamfrom: building the theory of messenger RNA

Tenacious, skilled, and self-effacing – these are words used to describe Dr. Hildegard Lamfrom by her colleagues and family. Born in 1922 to a Jewish family in Germany, Lamfrom fled with her parents and sisters to Portland, Oregon in 1938, and worked her way through Reed College by working as a welder in wartime shipyards. Twenty years later, with a PhD and years of working on the renin protein system in blood, she began to study protein synthesis as the field of molecular biology was just starting to take off.

Hildegard Lamfrom

With Richard Schweet, Lamfrom developed the first system of in vitro protein synthesis, and through her research with that system provided some early evidence supporting the existence of messenger RNA (which had proven quite hard to isolate due to the large diversity of RNA molecules within the cell). It’s difficult to imagine now, when the central dogma of molecular biology – DNA is transcribed into RNA which is translated into protein – is so thoroughly inculcated and so widely communicated, but at that time researchers were noting that each cell only made a tiny fraction of all the possible amino acid combinations, and that therefore some mechanism must be in place to direct the specificity of this process. And while DNA was known to encode information, its permanent location in the nucleus meant that it couldn’t interact directly with the “microsomes” (now known as ribosomes) that were involved in protein creation. Lamfrom demonstrated the existence of some sort of messenger molecule by showing that ribosomes from sheep would produce rabbit hemoglobin if incubated in the presence of rabbit cell fluid from which the ribosomes had been removed, and vice versa. That cell fluid clearly contained a molecule which carried the instructions for building each animal’s specific variety of hemoglobin protein!

While not much is available about Lamfrom’s life (I see an opportunity for a science biographer here), anecdotes from letters and obituaries suggest that she was deeply interested in mentoring younger scientists as well as in performing her own research, opening doors and smoothing paths to ensure that her students were able to find suitable places in either medical school or research labs. And a telling letter to Dr. Watson suggests that she was also quite good at throwing parties!

I would love to learn more about this woman – to see the personality behind the brilliant science, the passionate dedication, and the caring guidance and friendship. Both her drive and her humility can be seen in just that snippet of information about her paying for her undergraduate degree by welding in the shipyards of WWII America as a young Jewish immigrant… she was neither timid nor proud, but bold in the pursuit of her goals, and as a result she was able to contribute to research essential to the study of molecular biology as it is today. What she could only sketch the bare outline of through careful and detailed excavating research we now isolate and sequence to such a depth that we can examine the complete transcriptome (the total of all circulating messenger RNAs) of an organism or tissue under different conditions – but hers are some of the shoulders we stand upon when we uncover these mysteries of the cell.


References:
“From wartime welder to molecular biologist.” Reed Magazine, Vol. 96, No. 2. Link to article.
MacRae, Michael, “Letter from Michael MacRae to James D. Watson,” CSHL Archives Repository Reference JDW/2/2/1116/48. Link to article.
Abelson, John, “Hildegard Lamfrom’s Obituary, written by John Abelson,” CSHL Archives Repository, Reference SB/1/1/345/9, Link to article.
Barlow, Jim, “Unwind the Strands, Unlock the Secrets”, Oregon Quarterly, Link to article.

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