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Erwin Chargaff, Pioneer of DNA Research, Dies at 96

NEW YORK, July 1 - Erwin Chargaff, the renowned biochemist whose insights led to the discovery that DNA was composed of complementary base pairs, died on June 20 in New York. He was 96.

 

Chargaff began studying DNA in 1944 after Oswald Avery identified the molecule as the basis of heredity. In 1950, he determined that the amounts of adenine and thymine in DNA were roughly the same, as were the amounts of cytosine and guanine.

 

This principle, which became known as "Chargaff's rules," placed him among the pioneers of genetic science.

 

With bitter suspicions about the motivations of science and scientists and a dark eloquence rare among molecular biologists, Chargaff became a sharp critic of the accelerating pace of biotechnology.

 

"We manipulate nature as if we were stuffing an Alsatian goose," he once said. "We create new forms of energy; we make new elements; we kill crops; we wash brains. I can hear them in the dark sharpening their lasers."

 

Born in 1905 in Czernowitz, Austria, Chargaff first studied chemistry at the University of Vienna, arriving at Columbia as a biochemist in 1935. From 1970 to 1974 he chaired the department of biochemistry, eventually becoming professor emeritus. He retired in 1992.

 

His honors include the Pasteur Medal, which he won in 1949, and the National Medal of Science, awarded to him in 1974.

 

Chargaff married in 1928 and had one son, who survives him.

 

His skeptical nature and biting wit relegated Chargaff to outsider status in his later career, a role he did not seem to mind.

 

"The natural sciences have become part of the market economy," he told interviewers with Aventis' newsletter in 2001. "They have assumed all of the characteristics of capitalism, which can only exist if it is constantly expanding and renewing itself. The incessant pressure for innovation, the feeling that nothing is good enough and has to be constantly improved, is a sickness."

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