Discovery of DNA polymerase

  • Lehman I
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DNA polymerase, an enzyme discovered in 1955, has the remarkable capacity to catalyze the template-directed synthesis of DNA (1, 2). The discovery of DNA polymerase has contributed in major ways to our present day understanding of how DNA is replicated and repaired and how it is transcribed. It also permitted the development of PCR and DNA sequencing, upon which much of modern biotechnology is based. In this article, I wish to recount how the discovery of the first DNA polymerase, DNA polymerase I of Escherichia coli, came about. I will say at the outset that although I am the author of this “Reflections” article, the discovery of DNA polymerase and the revelation that it is a template-directed enzyme resulted from the collective efforts of a small group that initially consisted of Maurice Bessman, Ernie Simms, and myself working with Arthur Kornberg in the Department of Microbiology at the Washington University School of Medicine. We were later joined by Julius Adler and Steve Zimmerman. The approach that we took reflected Arthur’s strong conviction that once a simple and quantitative assay could be established in a cellular extract, enzyme purification would reveal the enzymes involved and ultimately lead to the elucidation of the reaction(s) that they catalyzed. This approach, taken by Otto Warburg and the other great German biochemists in the 1920s and 1930s, had inspired Arthur Kornberg in the elucidation of coenzyme and nucleotide biosynthesis (3, 4). Bessman, Adler, and I were postdoctoral fellows, Zimmerman was a graduate student, and Simms was a technician.

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  • I. R. Lehman

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