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Ignacio Tinoco dies at age 85

Colleagues reflect on the passing of UC Berkeley professor and pioneer in RNA folding

by Linda Wang
November 18, 2016

Credit: UC Berkeley College of Chemistry
Photo of a man.
Credit: UC Berkeley College of Chemistry

Ignacio Tinoco Jr., best known for his work in RNA folding, died on Nov. 15 at the age of 85. Tinoco was emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. To friends and colleagues, he was fondly known as “Nacho.”

“Nacho Tinoco single-handedly created the field of RNA biophysics. Over a career of more than 60 years, he was always a pioneer: from applications of quantum theory to why absorbance of nucleic acids increases upon helix melting, to the theory of circular dichroism, to using thermodynamics to predict RNA structures, to the use of NMR to study DNA and RNA, to applications of single-molecule methods to RNA,” says Joseph (Jody) Puglisi, professor and chair of the Department of Structural Biology at Stanford University. Puglisi earned his Ph.D. under Tinoco and coauthored the book “Physical Chemistry: Principles & Applications in Biological Sciences.” “The echoes of Nacho’s discoveries are everywhere in modern biochemistry and biology. He trained generations of RNA scientists, imbuing us with his humility, rigor, and wry sense of humor,” Puglisi adds.

Tinoco earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of New Mexico in 1951 and a Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1954. He joined the faculty at UC Berkeley in 1956.

Other former students and postdocs also shared their reflections of Tinoco with C&EN:

“In his unique, quiet, and understated way, Nacho taught many generations of scientists how to do science, how to ask the most important questions, and how to reduce the most complex problems to their central and essential core. But all those who met and worked with him know that he was more than a great scientist,” says Carlos Bustamante, professor of molecular and cell biology, physics, and chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, who earned his Ph.D. in Tinoco’s lab. “He was a fantastic mentor, an example, a model, and a teacher who taught his students the much more difficult task of being good, honest scientists. He showed us by his personal example how to be fair to our colleagues, to our competitors, and to ourselves. He showed us how to be humble before our own ignorance and to love the very process of searching for knowledge and understanding.”

“Nacho was incredibly sharp, but also patient, pragmatic, and very funny,” says Jan Liphardt, associate professor of bioengineering at Stanford University and a former postdoc in Tinoco’s lab. “One of his favorite questions was, ‘What’s the best way to sequence a piece of DNA?’ and I, like dozens of other students, gave the usual boring answer. Then Nacho would grin broadly and say, ‘No, no, much easier, you just make up any old sequence and publish it, and then your rivals will actually sequence the DNA to show you were wrong. See, much easier!’ ”

“He was infinitely curious, of the highest intellectual integrity, and a great inspiration,” says Frances Arnold, the Dick & Barbara Dickinson Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering & Biochemistry at Caltech, who was also a postdoc under Tinoco. “He loved science to the very end.”


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