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Obituaries

Nobel laureate Aaron Klug dies at 92

Molecular biology pioneer remembered for structural studies and supporting the scientific community

by Laura Howes
November 27, 2018

 

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Credit: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology
Aaron Klug

Sir Aaron Klug, retired structural biologist and sole recipient of the 1982 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, died on Nov. 20 at the age of 92. He not only contributed insights into biological structures, but also provided farsighted administration and support of science and scientists, his colleagues say.

Klug was born in Lithuania in 1926, but grew up in South Africa after his family moved there when he was two years old. After receiving a doctorate in physics from the University of Cambridge, Klug moved to Birkbeck College in London in 1953 and worked with Rosalind Franklin on the structure of tobacco mosaic virus. “From then on my fate was sealed,” Klug explained in his 1982 Nobel Prize biography.

After Franklin’s death in 1958, Klug took over the virus group and then moved back to Cambridge in 1962. At the university’s newly opened Laboratory for Molecular Biology (LMB), Klug continued to study the structures of complex biological molecules.

Klug was awarded the chemistry Nobel for his development of crystallographic electron microscopy and his structural elucidation of biologically important nucleic acid-protein complexes, such as chromatin, which forms the chromosomes inside cell nuclei.

“The now-common term ‘structural biology’ summarizes Aaron’s scientific perspective,” explains Keith Moffat, a biochemist at the University of Chicago. “Structure alone was never enough; structure was always a means—the means—to a biological end.”

In addition to his structural biology contributions, Klug championed other developments in science. As director of the LMB from 1986 to 1996, Klug supported the development of large-scale DNA sequencing and the establishment of the Sanger Centre (now the Wellcome Sanger Institute), which performs genomics research and was a key participant in the Human Genome Project. He was knighted in 1988 and served as president of the UK’s Royal Society from 1995 to 2000. As president, he encouraged the society to engage in public debates on topics such as embryonic stem cell research, genetically modified foods, and climate change.

“Aaron showed a vision that was far ahead of its time,” says Venki Ramakrishnan, who is the current president of the Royal Society and works at the LMB. “He will be greatly missed.”

“He was very modest and soft spoken but his scientific authority was unquestionable in any forum,” adds Moti Horowitz of Ben-Gurion University, where Klug was a scientific advisor for several years. “He never took advantage of his scientific prestige because he earned the respect of the other immediately. He was an exceptional person in all respects.”

Klug is survived by his wife Liebe, son David, and several grandchildren.

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