Jerry Adams on Verifying the Genetic Code
  Jerry Adams     Biography    
Recorded: 15 Jan 2003

A second moment probably came in the Sanger lab. Incidentally I might mention something there about Jim. You'll have to edit this and put it in another place. I mentioned before that I had struggled in the latter part of my Ph.D. for years on this problem of the deformylase. When I got to Cambridge I thought I must solve this problem, I must solve it. So I started working on it there. And I was rather shocked when Jim happened to visit Cambridge and he said, “Are you still working on that problem?” And I suddenly realized—this was a release. I suddenly realized [that] maybe I don’t have to keep banging my head against the wall on this one problem forever. Maybe I should be doing something different.

So then I went on to the idea of trying to see if it was possible to actually work out the structure of larger RNA molecules while taking advantage of the possibility that they might have some kind of secondary structure. So if you made a partial digest you might be able to separate the fragments out. I remember the first gel we ran where we actually saw, sort of, bands of RNA that had been—and from these partial digests—it was a technical achievement, but it was very important because it suddenly meant that it would be possible to solve the structure of larger RNA molecules than had never been done before. So that was a great thing that happened in Cambridge. And we went ahead in the Sanger lab to actually get the first amino acid sequence that actually corresponded to the polypeptides so that was extremely exciting to suddenly see the genetic code verified cause before it had been mostly in vitro experiments and speculation but no one had actually seen the connection between the messenger RNA sequence and the encoded polypeptide. So that was exciting.

Jerry Adams, currently Professor and Joint Head of Molecular Genetics of Cancer Division of The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, is noted for his achievements in molecular biology, immunology and the molecular genetics of cancer. After completing his BSc in Chemistry at Emory University in 1962, he completed his Ph.D. at Harvard under James Watson. During this time, Adams and Mario Capecchi discovered the initiation mechanism for polypeptides. Adams earned his degree in 1967 and went on to do post-doctoral work at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, where he met his wife, Suzanne Cory. They did further research in Geneva, and in 1972 joined The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Australia.

Adams and his research team have made many major contributions to medical science. They were the first to clone mammalian genes in Australia and discovered: (i) that antibody genes encode to recombine in a myriad of ways to fight infection; (ii) the genetic mutation that leads to Burkitt’s lymphoma and (iii) the connection between apoptosis and cancer, while studying bcl-2 gene in follicular lymphoma (with David Vaux).

Adams is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (1986), a Fellow of the Royal Society of London (1992), a Fellow of the Royal Society of Victoria (1997) and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.