Posted May 5, 1999
Heinz L. Fraenkel-Conrat, a biochemist and professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology, died of pulmonary failure April 10 at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland. He was 88.
During his distinguished career, Fraenkel-Conrat, a Berkeley resident, made the landmark discovery that genetic information controlling viral reproduction is carried in the nucleic acid core of each virus particle. He has been cited as the first man to take a virus apart, separate its components and put it back together again to reconstitute a live virus.
Colleague Robley Williams, a campus biophysicist, determined that the structure of the synthetic tobacco mosaic virus was indistinguishable from the original, and Fraenkel-Conrat showed that it was nearly as infectious as the wild virus.
Michael Botchan, professor of molecular and cell biology, said the idea that RNA as well as DNA could act as genetic material was still surprising when Fraenkel-Conrat and his colleagues made their discoveries in the 1950s.
Born in Breslau, Germany, Fraenkel-Conrat received an MD from the University of Breslau in 1933. After Hitler came to power, he left for Scotland, where he earned a PhD in biochemistry at the University of Edinburgh. In 1936 he came to the United States, conducting research at various institutions. He joined the Berkeley faculty in 1952.
In 1960, Fraenkel-Conrat and colleagues announced the complete sequencing of the 158 amino acids of the tobacco mosaic virus protein, the largest protein whose structure was then known.
He continued active research all his life, publishing his last paper on viral reconstitution this year with his wife and collaborator, Bea Singer, currently a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory biochemist. She worked with him from the early days, first showing viral RNA alone was infectious, an important step in elucidating the genetic code.
Fraenkel-Conrat received numerous honors, including the Albert Lasker Award in Basic Medical Research, the first California Scientist of the Year Award, two Guggenheim fellowships and the Humboldt Senior U.S. Scientist Award. He was the Berkeley Faculty Research Lecturer for the university's 100th anniversary and was even granted the pope's Pontifical Medal, said Singer.
A dedicated teacher, Fraenkel-Conrat launched a large molecular biology undergraduate course for non-scientists and invited undergraduates to consult with him at any time. He also edited or co-edited numerous books, including two textbook series.
In accordance with Fraenkel-Conrat's wishes, there will be no memorial service. Friends are invited to donate in his name to Bancroft Library.