Department News



Joan Steitz, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigator and Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale School of Medicine, will deliver the 2015 John T. Edsall Lecture on “Viral Noncoding RNAs: Insights into Evolution,” to be held September, 18, 2014.

After receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry from Antioch College in 1963, Steitz began a doctoral program in biochemistry and molecular biology at Harvard University. Under the guidance of Nobel Prize winner James Watson, a co-discoverer of DNA’s double-helical structure, she researched RNA structure and function in bacteria. After earning her Ph.D. in 1967, Steitz began a postdoctoral fellowship at the Medical Research Council Laboratory in Cambridge, England, where she would make some of her most notable breakthroughs.

As a postdoctoral fellow, she discovered the messenger RNA (mRNA) “start” sequences to which bacterial ribosomes bind during DNA translation. Building upon that work as an associate professor at Yale University in the mid-1970s, Steitz demonstrated that ribosomes use complementary base pairing to identify mRNA start sequences. She also went on to discover and define the function of small nuclear ribonuclearproteins (snRNPs)—eukaryotic cellular complexes that excise non-coding segments, called introns, from pre-mRNA and splice together the remaining protein-coding exons to create mRNA during DNA transcription. Steitz became an HHMI Investigator in 1986, and a Henry Ford II Professor and Sterling Professor at Yale in 1992 and 1998, respectively.

Today, Steitz’s lab focuses on non-coding RNAs and their role in gene expression. Current efforts include understanding how splicing influences downstream events in gene expression, how guide RNAs modify components of snRNPs, and the regulation of microRNA biogenesis during nuclear maturation. This research could provide new insights into lupus—an autoimmune disorder where the body produces antibodies against its own DNA, snRNPs, or ribosomes. Additionally, her lab is also working to understand viral microRNA biogenesis and function, as well as decipher the roles of viral non-coding RNPs in cells infected with herpesviruses such as Epstein-Barr virus, Herpesvirus saimiri, and Kaposi sarcoma virus.

Steitz has received numerous awards throughout her illustrious career, including the Eli Lilly Award in Biological Chemistry (1976), the U.S. Steel Foundation Award in Molecular Biology (1982), the National Medal of Science (1986), the Novartis-Drew Award in Biomedical Research (1999), the RNA Society Lifetime Achievement Award (2004), the E.B. Wilson Medal (2005), the National Cancer Institute’s Rosalind E. Franklin Award for Women in Science (2006), as well as many honorary doctorates.




The Edsall Lecture is given annually in honor of John Edsall, a member of the faculty of Harvard University from 1928 to 1973, when he became emeritus but remained engaged in research for more than 20 years. He died in 2002 a few months short of 100 years of age. Dr. Edsall’s scientific career started in Edwin J. Cohn’s Department of Physical Chemistry at Harvard Medical School, where he studied the properties of the muscle proteins and of the amino acids. These studies among many others led to the 1943 book by Cohn and Edsall, Proteins, Amino Acids and Peptides as Ions and Dipolar Ions, which became a classic in the field of protein chemistry. During World War II he had a key role in isolating blood proteins for the war effort and developed fibrin foam, a porous form of a fibrin clot for use in neurosurgical procedures. In 1954, Dr. Edsall joined the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and moved to the Biological Laboratories, where he started research on carbonic anhydrase. He was greatly concerned with education. He was a tutor in the biochemical sciences concentration for 40 years and Head Tutor from more than 25 years. He taught a course on biophysical chemistry at the college from 1940 until he retired; the course led to the writing of a textbook with his closest scientific colleague, Jeffries Wyman.  He had a leading role in 1954 in the formation of the Committee on Higher Degrees in Biochemistry, a graduate program leading to the PhD degree in biochemistry; the committee became the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in 1967. Dr. Edsall was also a champion in the fight for the freedom and integrity of science.  – Guido Guidotti