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Walter Gilbert

Walter Gilbert, (born March 21, 1932, Boston, Mass., U.S.), molecular biologist, was awarded a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1980 (along with Paul Berg and Frederick Sanger) for his development of a rapid method for determining the sequence of nucleotides in DNA molecules.

Gilbert graduated from Harvard University with a degree in chemistry and physics in 1953 and took a Ph.D. in mathematics from Cambridge University in 1957. He joined the Harvard faculty as a lecturer in physics in 1958, as an assistant professor of physics in 1959, and, as his interests changed, advanced to be an associate professor of biophysics in 1964, and then professor of biochemistry in 1968. In 1974, he became American Cancer Society Professor of Molecular Biology at Harvard.

In the late 1960s Gilbert demonstrated that a protein was the “repressor” in the theory of Jacques Monod and François Jacob that there was a negative control of genes which turned off genes not being used by preventing the synthesis
of the corresponding protein. He was able to demonstrate the existence of such a repressor protein in the bacterium Escherichia coli that prevents a gene from manufacturing a group of enzymes involved sugar in metabolism except when the sugar lactose is present. In the 1970s Gilbert developed a widely used technique of using gel electrophoresis to read the nucleotide sequences of DNA by breaking the DNA into fragments by chemical means whose length corresponded
to the positions of the bases.

A similar method, using enzymatic methods to develop the fragments, was developed independently by Sanger. In 1979 Gilbert, joined a group of other scientists and businessmen to form Biogen, a commercial genetic-engineering research corporation. Gilbert later, in 1981, became Chairman and CEO.

Gilbert resigned from Biogen in 1985 and, returning to Harvard, became a chief proponent of the Human Genome Project, a government-funded effort to compile a complete map of all the genes and sequences in human DNA. He remained active in reseach at Harvard until 2001.

Gilbert was a founder of Myriad Genetics in 1992 and has served since as director and vice chairman of the board. He was a founder of Paratek Pharmaceuticals (1996), a company developing drugs to combat bacterial resistance, and Memory Pharmaceuticals (1998), which was geared toward developing cures for central nervous system disorders.

Gilbert has also been a managing director of BioVentures Investors, since 2001. He has served on the advisory and directoral boards of several other biotechnology companies as well, including being a director of Amylyx Pharmaceuticals, which is developing a treatment for ALS.

After retiring from Harvard in 2001, Gilbert launched an artistic career centered on digital photography.