Jean L.A. Brachet was awarded the Dr H.P. Heineken Prize for Biochemistry and Biophysics 1967 for his contribution to the knowledge of the role played by the second type of nucleic acid: ribonucleic acid (RNA).
In the late 1920s little was known about either type of nucleic acid except that DNA was characteristic for animal cells and RNA for plant cells. But as early as 1933 Brachet was able to show that DNA was localized in chromosomes and RNA in cytoplasm of all cells. Brachet, to quote Professor J.A. Cohen at the prize-giving in 1967, ‘must have been one of the first to have a premonition about the significance of DNA as a carrier of genetic information.’
The association of rigorous enzymatic methods, allied to cytochemistry, led Brachet during the war to develop the ribonuclease test. His work paved the way to the conclusion that RNA plays an active role in protein synthesis. This work of Brachet led to later discoveries about the exact mechanism of genetic transcription and translation. Brachet also carried out pioneering work in the field of cell differentiation. He has shown how this is controlled by the chromosomes on which the formation of cytoplasmic ribonucleoprotein particles depends. Brachet stressed the importance of the ribonucleic acid particles for differentiation and as support of the so-called ‘morphogenetic potential gradients’ of developing embryos and the ‘morphogenetic substances’ of acetabularia amphibia. Making full use of the new notions developed in molecular biology Brachet demonstrated in later papers that differentiation is preceded by the formation of new ribosomes and accompanied by the release from the nucleus of a wave of new messenger RNA.
About the laureate
Jean Louis Auguste Brachet was born in Etterbeek (Belgium) on March 19, 1909. He studied medicine at the University of Brussels and graduated summa cum laude in 1934. Thereafter he worked at the Universities of Cambridge (UK) and Princeton (USA) and at the institutes of marine biological research in Roscoff, Sète, Naples and Woods Hole (USA). Brachet was a Professor of Animal Morphology (embryology and cytology) and General Biology at the Vrije Universiteit of Brussels and Research Director of the International Laboratory for Genetics and Biophysics in Naples. He has held visiting professorships at the Institut Pasteur, Paris, the Universities of Pennsylvania (USA) and Liège, the Cancer Research Centre in India, the University of Ghent, the Rockefeller Institute, the Weizmann Institute of Israel, and the Universities of Louvain and Texas. He has received many distinctions and awards, and honorary doctorates of the Universities of Poitiers, Turin, Palermo, Edinburgh and Strasbourg.
He has published a great number of articles, most of them in journals, and has also written four books. L’Embryologic chimique (1944), which has been translated into English, Russian and Chinese; Biochemical Cytology (1957), which has been translated into Russian; the Biochemistry of Development(1960); and the Biological Role of Ribonucleic Acids (1960). The last contains a survey of the research on RNA carried out by Brachet and others up to that time.
Jean Brachet passed away in 1998.