Image of a cell

Alexander Rich

  • National Medal of Science
  • Biological Sciences

For his numerous fundamental contributions to our knowledge of the structure and function of DNA and RNA, the central information carriers in living systems.

Molecular biologist Alexander Rich advanced our knowledge of DNA and RNA molecules, which provide the blueprints for life. His research laid the groundwork for several areas of modern biotechnology.

Rich discovered a DNA structure that spiraled upward to the left, known as z-DNA, opposed to the more common, right-spiraling b-DNA proposed by Watson and Crick. Rich also investigated the properties of RNA, discovering that it had the same double-helix structure as DNA, and demonstrated its many functions: reading the genetic code carried by DNA, transmitting the coded instructions, and then following those instructions to assemble vital proteins.

His work provided insights into how cells manufacture proteins and laid the groundwork for techniques that scientists use to identify and replace pieces of genetic material. Diagnostics for HIV and tests for genes that cause breast cancer were built on Rich’s discoveries. His research continues to have applications in diagnostics, forensics, genealogy and gene sequencing.

By Jen Santisi