Severo Ochoa

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Luarca, Spain
Birth Sign
Luarca, Spain

Severo Ochoa was a Spanish physician and biochemist who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1959 with Arthur Kornberg “for their discovery of the mechanisms in the biological synthesis of ribonucleic acid and deoxyribonucleic acid.” He was born in Luarca, Spain, and was raised by his mother in the coastal town of Málaga after his father died when he was young. During his school years, he developed an interest in natural science. Later, he enrolled in the University of Madrid School of Medicine, not because he aspired to be a doctor, but because he believed it was the most effective method to learn more about his favorite subject, biology. He also hoped to study under Santiago Ramón y Cajal, a renowned Spanish neuroscientist and Nobel laureate, but Cajal had retired by the time Ochoa was accepted. Nonetheless, while still in college, he had the opportunity to work in Juan Negrn’s laboratory, where he developed a passion for research. He spent the first few years of his career traveling from country to country, pursuing his research with unwavering zeal. At the age of 37, he finally found stability when he enrolled at New York University. Here he worked on the biological synthesis of RNA, which won him the Nobel Prize. Despite receiving American citizenship in 1956, he never forgot his roots and spent the last years of his life in Spain, where he continued to make significant contributions to science.

Childhood and Adolescence

Severo Ochoa de Albornoz was born in Luarca, Spain, on September 24, 1905. Severo Manuel Ochoa, his father, was a lawyer and businessman. Carmen de Albornoz Ocha was his mother’s name. He was the youngest of seven children born to his parents.

Severo Ochoa was just seven years old when his father, Ochoa Senior, died. Carmen and her family then relocated to Málaga, a city on the Mediterranean coast. Ochoa began his schooling at a local elementary school.

He was afterward accepted into Málaga’s Instituto de Bachillerato for secondary education. His chemistry teacher sparked his interest in natural science when he was in school. He was also influenced by Nobel Laureate and neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who encouraged him to pursue a degree in biology.

Ochoa entered Málaga College after finishing his secondary education and got his baccalauréat in 1921. After that, he spent a year getting ready for medical school. Finally, in 1923, he was accepted into the University of Madrid’s Medical School.

By the conclusion of his second year, Ochoa had been hired as a teacher in Juan Negrn’s laboratory, a position he retained for the rest of his studies. He collaborated with José Valdecasas to remove creatinine from urine at this location. They also devised a technique for detecting low levels of muscle creatinine.

Ochoa traveled to Glasgow for his internship in 1927. There, he studied on creatinine metabolism with D. Noel Paton. He also took advantage of the opportunity to improve his English. Finally, in the summer of 1929, Ochoa got his M.D. from the University of Madrid’s Medical School.

Career of Severo Ochoa

Ochoa was invited to join Otto Meyerhof’s research at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biology in Berlin-Dahlem shortly after getting his medical degree in 1929. Ochoa took an interest in the enzymatic mechanisms of metabolic reactions while working there, and researched the sources of energy in frog muscle activity.

He returned to Madrid in 1930 to finish his dissertation thesis on the role of the adrenal glands in the chemistry of muscle contraction, and he got his PhD the following year. He was then hired as a lecturer in physiology at the University of Madrid in 1931.

Ochoa took a hiatus in 1932 to complete his post-doctoral study at the London National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR). He worked on the enzyme glyoxalase with Sir Henry Hallett Dale, which functions as a catalyst in the conversion of methylglyoxal to lactic acid.

Ochoa returned to Madrid in 1933 after two years of post-doctoral work in London to continue his teaching career at the University of Madrid. Simultaneously, he began investigating the role of glyoxalase in the heart muscles.
The University of Madrid established a new Institute for Medical Research in 1935. While the Medical School supplied the room, affluent sponsors pledged to fund the rest of the costs. Ochoa was named Director of the Physiology Section the following year.

Unfortunately, the Spanish Civil War broke out shortly after the research center opened, making it difficult for Ochoa to continue his studies. As a result, he left Spain in September 1936 to work as a Guest Research Assistant at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biology, now based in Heidelberg, with Otto Meyerhof.

Germany in 1936 was not the same as Germany in 1930, according to Ochoa. Political meddling was prevalent, and the laboratory’s mission had shifted. Ochoa worked on some of the enzymatic stages of glycolysis and fermentation for a while, but soon realized he had moved from one troubled country to another.

Fortunately, Meyerhof was able to secure him a Ray Lankester Investigator Fellowship, and in July 1937, Ochoa began working at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Plymouth, England. He continued his research on the metabolic role of ‘cozymase,’ which was eventually identified as nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD), which he had began in Meyerhof’s lab.

Ochoa was able to extract NAD in its purest form quite quickly. Due to a staffing shortfall, Mrs. Ochoa, while being inexperienced in laboratory work, contributed significantly. However, because the Fellowship was only for six months, he had to pack his belongings at the conclusion of the year.

Fortunately, Ochoa’s friends assisted him in obtaining a Nuffield Foundation fellowship, and he began working as a Research Assistant and Demonstrator at the University of Oxford in December 1937. He worked with Rudolph Albert Peters here and was effective in isolating a variety of enzymes. They also proved that thiamin plays a role in enzyme function.

Ochoa produced over eighteen papers during his time at Oxford, two of which were critical to his career. He looked at the relationship between various cofactors and pyruvate metabolism in brain tissue in these two articles. Regrettably, the period came to an end too soon.

When World War II broke out in 1939, England’s laboratories shifted their focus to wartime research, and Ochoa, as a foreigner, had no place in it. As a result, he wrote to Carl and Gerty Cori, who eagerly encouraged him to join them at their University of Washington laboratory.

In August 1940, Ochoa moved to the United States and began teaching pharmacology at Washington University, where he worked for two years alongside Carl Cori. However, due to a lack of productivity during this time, he moved to New York University School of Medicine as a Research Associate in Medicine in 1942.
For the first time, Ochoa had graduate and postdoctoral students under his supervision at New York University. He presently focuses on RNA virus protein synthesis and replication.

He was promoted to Assistant Professor of Biochemistry in 1945, Professor of Pharmacology in 1946, and Professor of Biochemistry and Chairman of the Biochemistry Department in 1954.
He left New York University in 1974 and joined the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology, where he worked until 1985.

Despite becoming an American citizen in 1956, Ochoa returned to Spain in 1985 and began working as a consultant for the Spanish Science Policy Authorities. He also lectured at the Autonomous University of Madrid for a period and provided scientific advice to Spaniards.

Major Projects of Severo Ochoa

Ochoa focused on enzymatic mechanisms in biological oxidation and synthesis, as well as energy transfer. He is most known for his work on oxidative phosphorylation, which led to the development of RNA and the genetic code. His research made a substantial contribution to our understanding of life’s mechanisms.

Achievements & Awards

For his “discovery of the mechanisms in the biological synthesis of ribonucleic acid and deoxyribonucleic acid,” Ochoa was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1959. He split the prize with Arthur Kornberg, who had worked on the same subject separately.

Ochoa also earned the Neuberg Medal in Biochemistry in 1951, the Société de Chimie Biologique Medal and the Medal of New York University Medal in 1959, the Paul Karrer Gold Medal in 1963, and the National Medal of Science in 1979.

Ochoa was the President of the International Union of Biochemistry from 1961 to 1967. He was also made a member of various learned societies and received honorary degrees from the Universities of Washington, Glasgow, Oxford, Salamanca, Brazil, and Wesleyan University.

Personal History and Legacy

Ochoa married Carmen Garcia Cobian in 1931 and they were married until her death in 1986. They didn’t have any children of their own.

On November 1, 1993, he died of pneumonia in Madrid, Spain.
On January 14, 2005, the asteroid 117435 Severochoa was found at the Observatorio de La Caada in Spain and named after him.

A new research center in Spain, CBM Severo Ochoa, was also named after him.
In June 2011, the United States Postal Service released a stamp in his honor.

Estimated Net Worth

The estimated net worth of Severo Ochoa is unknown.