Photo of Howard M. Temin

Howard M. Temin

  • National Medal of Science
  • Biological Sciences

For his demonstration of the existence of RNA-directed DNA synthesis, leading to the discovery of proto-oncogenes within eukaryotic cells and the role of such genes in oncogenesis by viruses and other agents, laying the foundation for our knowledge of the replication of HIV, changing our ideas about evolution, and providing vital technology for genetic engineering and human gene therapy.

Prior to 1970, the central dogma of molecular biology was that a cell’s genetic information travels down a one-way street, from DNA to RNA to proteins. Howard M. Temin, then a virologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, discovered an enzyme– reverse transcriptase– that used an RNA template to catalyze the synthesis of DNA. The discovery confirmed genetic information can travel both ways.

The discovery of reverse transcriptase revolutionized the field of molecular biology. It became possible to unravel the genetics of tumor viruses and launched a new era in cancer research. It was crucial to the field of biotechnology and the process of genetic engineering that’s produced drugs like human insulin and tPA (a clot-dissolving agent that stops heart attacks in progress). It also made possible the discovery of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Temin’s studies have contributed to the practical application of retroviruses in gene therapy for the treatment of many diseases. Temin and his colleagues developed derivatives of retroviruses, termed retroviral vectors, that can deliver therapeutic genetic material to cells. Retroviral vectors continue to be the tool of choice for human gene therapies.

By Jen Santisi