Werner Arber

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Gränichen, Aarau
Birth Sign
Gränichen, Aarau

Werner Arber is a Swiss microbiologist and geneticist who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering how to use enzymes to break down DNA molecules into smaller fragments that retain their inherent properties and can be studied easily. He shared the prize with two other American scientists who collaborated on the experiments, Daniel Nathans and Hamilton Othanel Smith. His primary research focused on the enzymes found in bacteria that have been infected with a virus and the way the enzymes alter the virus’s DNA in order to protect the bacteria. He began his career as an assistant in a biophysics laboratory, where he was responsible for keeping electron microscopes in good working order. He was also tasked with the responsibility of preparing biological samples for examination under the microscope by other researchers. While performing this job, he gained familiarity with fundamental concepts in genetics and ‘bacteriophage physiology’ and developed an interest in a previously unexplored field of research on ‘bacteriophage’. Arber left his job involving electron microscopy to pursue genetics research, which developed into a passion for him over the years.

Childhood & Adolescence

Werner Arber was born on June 3, 1929 in Granichen, Switzerland, in the Canton of Aargau.
He attended public schools in Granichen until he was sixteen years old.

He then enrolled in the gymnasium at the ‘Kantonsschule Aarau,’ from which he graduated in 1949 with a B-type maturity.

He then enrolled at the ‘Swiss Federal Institute of Technology’ in Zurich, which is affiliated with the ‘University of Geneva,’ where he studied physics and chemistry from 1949 to 1953 for his diploma in ‘Natural Sciences.’ He developed an interest in fundamental research during the latter part of his studies while attempting to isolate and characterize an isomer.

In November 1953, he began working as an assistant for electron microscopy at the ‘University of Geneva’s’ Biophysics Laboratory. He assisted in the maintenance of the two electron microscopes and spent considerable time assisting in the preparation of biological specimens for viewing with the microscopes. While doing so, he became acquainted with fundamental concepts in genetics and the physiology of ‘bacteriophages.’

He was also inspired by Jean Weigle’s lectures at the ‘University of Geneva’ as a professor of experimental physics. Weigle became a biologist while studying at the ‘Department of Biology’ at the ‘California Institute of Technology, Pasadena’. He conducted research on ‘bacteriophage lamda’.

In 1958, he earned a PhD from the ‘University of Geneva’ with a thesis on the characteristics of ‘bacteriophage.’

Career of Werner Arber

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Werner Arber and a few other scientists began working on the findings of another Nobel laureate, Salvador Luria. Luria discovered that the viruses known as ‘bacteriophages’ that infect bacteria are themselves affected by hereditary mutations while inducing hereditary mutations in their hosts. His research focused primarily on the protective properties of certain enzymes found in bacteria that inhibit the growth of ‘bacteriophages.’

In the summer of 1958, he accepted an offer from the ‘University of Southern California’ in Los Angeles to work with Joe Bertani, who had previously collaborated with Jean Weigle on research on ‘bacteriophages’. Arber began collaborating with Joe Bertani on a ‘bacteriophage’ variant of the E. Coli virus that Bertani isolated a few years prior.

He received numerous offers for post-doctoral work from various laboratories, as his doctoral thesis was highly regarded by the genetics community. Eduard Kellenberger also invited him to return to Geneva to conduct research on the effect of radiation on microorganisms.

He spent a few weeks working at the ‘Gunther Stent’ laboratory in Berkeley, the ‘Joshua Lederberg’ laboratory in Stanford, and the ‘Salvador Luria’ laboratory at the ‘Massachusetts Institute of Technology’ in Cambridge before returning to Geneva in early 1960.

He returned to Geneva and began working on the E.Coli bacteriophage. Within a year of research, he established that both the ‘bacteriophage’ and the cell’s DNA had been modified and strain-specific restrictions imposed.

Arber and another geneticist, Daisy Dussoix, first reported this phenomenon to the scientific community in 1961 at Stockholm’s ‘First International Biophysics Congress.’

Arber presented the findings in greater detail to the ‘Science Faculty’ at the ‘University of Geneva’ in 1962, for which he received an honorary doctorate from the university.

In 1963, he spent a year as a visiting ‘Miller Research Professor’ at the ‘Department of Molecular Biology’ at the ‘University of California, Berkeley.

He was appointed ‘Extraordinary Professor for Molecular Genetics’ at the ‘University of Geneva’ in 1965.

Between 1965 and 1970, he was able to obtain financial support for fundamental research from the ‘Swiss National Science Foundation.’ This was during a time when direct financial assistance from the Swiss federal government was unavailable.

He was offered a professorship at the ‘University of Basel’ in 1968. He began his career at the ‘University of Basel’ in 1971 and served as a professor of microbiology there until 1996. He was one of the first few employees at the newly constructed ‘Biozentrum,’ which housed the departments of microbiology, biophysics, biochemistry, cell biology, pharmacology, and structural biology.

In 1981, he was elected to the Scientific Board of the ‘World Knowledge Dialogue’ and to the ‘Pontifical Academy of Sciences’.

Pope Benedict XVI appointed him president of the ‘Pontifical Academy of Sciences’ in January 2011. As a result, he became the first Protestant to serve as president of a predominantly Catholic institution.

He has spent the last several years studying ‘transposons’ and ‘insertion elements’ and their roles in providing the driving force for microorganism evolution.

Awards and Accomplishments

In 1962, Werner Arber was awarded the ‘Plantamour-Prevost’ prize by the ‘University of Geneva.

Werner Arber was a 1978 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine.

Personal History and Legacies

In 1966, Werner Arber married Antonia.

Silvia and Caroline were born in 1968 and 1974, respectively.

Estimated Net Worth

The Estimated Net Worth of Werner Arber is $3 million.


When Werner Arber’s daughter Silvia learned of his discovery following his Nobel Prize acceptance, she created a story about it that garnered widespread attention. The DNA is referred to in the story as the King, ruling over a kingdom of subjects represented by the bacteria. The enzymes are servants who use scissors to sever the head of a foreign king who enters the kingdom in order to learn his secrets without causing harm to their own king.