Although Phillip Sharp is today one of the pre-eminent geneticists and molecular biologist of our time, his early life began far away from the laboratories where he made his greatest discoveries. Born in rural Kentucky and raised in the same house where his mother grew up, Sharp was firmly rooted in the small community where he spent his youth. With the tuition paid for by his work raising cattle for the market and growing tobacco, Sharp graduated from Union College in Kentucky with degrees in Chemistry and Mathematics. Then he decided to leave the South, and attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he received his Ph.D. in Chemistry in 1969. During his following years at Caltech, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and most recently MIT, Sharp has contributed enormously to knowledge on gene expression in human cells. He is perhaps best known for co-discovering “split genes”—that RNA can be divided into introns and exons, allowing the gene the potential to form different proteins. This discovery has been critical to research in both biology and medicine, particularly related to the development of cancer and other types of diseases.
By Jeremy Gordon