Erwin Chargaff was born in 1905 in Czernowiz, Austria. He was a pioneer in biochemistry and contributed to the understanding of DNA. In 1928, he earned his doctoral degree in chemistry at the University of Vienna’s Spath’s Institute. Erwin began his career in biochemistry at Yale University, working under Rudolph J. Anderson from 1928 to 1930.
His early work included stories of complex lipids, which are fats or fatty acids that occur in microorganisms. He helped discover unusual fatty acids and waxes in acid-fast mycobacteria, which led him to study the metabolism and biological role of lipids in the body. Chargaff was also a pioneer in using radioactive isotopes of phosphorus as a tool to study the synthesis and breakdown of phosphorus-containing lipid molecules in living cells. He published a paper on the synthesis of a radioactive organic compound called alpha-glycerophosphoric acid. He began studying nucleic acids in 1944 while at Colombia.
Until this time, scientists believed that amino acids carried genetic information. It was also believed that DNA contained tetranucleotides made up of cytosine, thymine, adenine, and guanine, which served as attachment sites for the amino acids that made up genes. It was already known that a cell’s nucleus is comprised in part by DNA. Chargaff was able to determine how much of each base was present by measuring the amount of light each quantity of base absorbed. He showed that adenine and thymine occur in DNA in equal proportions in all organisms and that cytosine and guanine are also found in equal quantities. Chargaff’s major conclusion is that DNA carries genetic information, and the number of different combinations in which the four nucleic acids appear in DNA provides enough complexity to form the basis of heredity.
Finally, he concluded that the identity of combinations differs from species to species and that DNA strands differ between species. Overall, his findings were important contributions to biochemistry, including the addition of a key piece to the puzzle of the structure of DNA. This led to major developments in the field of medical genetics and ultimately helped pave the way for gene therapy and the birth of the biotechnology industry.