Erwin Chargaff

Erwin Chargaff
Erwin Chargaff
Born (1905-08-11)August 11, 1905
Czernowitz, Duchy of Bukovina, Austria-Hungary
Died June 20, 2002(2002-06-20) (aged 96)
Manhattan, New York City, United States
Nationality American (since 1940)
Education Maximiliansgymnasium, Vienna
Alma mater Vienna College of Technology (1924–1928)
Known for Chargaff's rules
Vera Broido
(m. 1928; d. 1995)
Children Thomas Chargaff
Awards Pasteur Medal (1949), National Medal of Science (1974)
Scientific career
Fields Biochemistry
Institutions Yale University (1925–1930), University of Berlin (1930–1933), Pasteur Institute (1933–1934), Columbia University (1935–1974), Roosevelt Hospital (1974–1992)
Doctoral advisor Fritz Feigl
Doctoral students Seymour S. Cohen, David Sprinson, Boris Magasanik
Erwin Chargaff signature.png

Erwin Chargaff (11 August 1905 – 20 June 2002) was an Austro-Hungarian biochemist who immigrated to the United States during the Nazi era and was a professor of biochemistry at Columbia University medical school.[1] Through careful experimentation, Chargaff discovered two rules that helped lead to the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA.

The first rule was that in DNA the number of guanine units is equal to the number of cytosine units, and the number of adenine units is equal to the number of thymine units. This hinted at the base pair makeup of DNA.

The second rule was that the relative amounts of guanine, cytosine, adenine and thymine bases vary from one species to another. This hinted that DNA rather than protein could be the genetic material.

Early life

Chargaff was born on 11 August 1905 to a Jewish family in Czernowitz, Duchy of Bukovina, Austria-Hungary, which is now Chernivtsi, Ukraine.

At the outbreak of World War I, his family moved to Vienna, where he attended the Maximiliansgymnasium (now the Gymnasium Wasagasse). He then went on to the Vienna College of Technology (Technische Hochschule Wien) where he met his future wife Vera Broido.

From 1924 to 1928, Chargaff studied chemistry in Vienna, and earned a doctorate working under the direction of Fritz Feigl.[2]

He married Vera Broido in 1928. Chargaff had one son, Thomas Chargaff.

From 1925 to 1930, Chargaff served as the Milton Campbell Research Fellow in organic chemistry at Yale University, but he did not like New Haven, Connecticut. Chargaff returned to Europe, where he lived from 1930 to 1934, serving first as the assistant in charge of chemistry for the department of bacteriology and public health at the University of Berlin (1930–1933) and then, being forced to resign his position in Germany as a result of the Nazi policies against Jews, as a research associate at the Pasteur Institute in Paris (1933–1934).

Columbia University

Chargaff emigrated to Manhattan, New York City in 1935, taking a position as a research associate in the department of biochemistry at Columbia University, where he spent most of his professional career. Chargaff became an assistant professor in 1938 and a professor in 1952. After serving as department chair from 1970 to 1974, Chargaff retired as professor emeritus. After his retirement as professor emeritus, Chargaff moved his lab to Roosevelt Hospital, where he continued to work until his retirement in 1992.

He became an American citizen in 1940.

During his time at Columbia, Chargaff published numerous scientific papers, dealing primarily with the study of nucleic acids such as DNA using chromatographic techniques. He became interested in DNA in 1944 after Oswald Avery identified the molecule as the basis of heredity. In 1950, he discovered that the amounts of adenine and thymine in DNA were roughly the same, as were the amounts of cytosine and guanine.[3] This later became known as the first of Chargaff's rules.

Chargaff's rules

Erwin Chargaff proposed two main rules in his lifetime which were appropriately named Chargaff's rules. The first and best known achievement was to show that in natural DNA the number of guanine units equals the number of cytosine units and the number of adenine units equals the number of thymine units. In human DNA, for example, the four bases are present in these percentages: A=30.9% and T=29.4%; G=19.9% and C=19.8%. This strongly hinted towards the base pair makeup of the DNA, although Chargaff did not explicitly state this connection himself. For this research, Chargaff is credited with disproving the tetranucleotide hypothesis (Phoebus Levene's widely accepted hypothesis that DNA was composed of a large number of repeats of GACT). Most researchers had previously assumed that deviations from equimolar base ratios (G = A = C = T) were due to experimental error, but Chargaff documented that the variation was real, with [C + G] typically being slightly less abundant. He was able to do this with the newly developed paper chromatography and ultraviolet spectrophotometer. Chargaff met Francis Crick and James D. Watson at Cambridge in 1952, and, despite not getting along with them personally,[4] he explained his findings to them. Chargaff's research would later help the Watson and Crick laboratory team to deduce the double helical structure of DNA.

The second of Chargaff's rules is that the composition of DNA varies from one species to another, in particular in the relative amounts of A, G, T, and C bases. Such evidence of molecular diversity, which had been presumed absent from DNA, made DNA a more credible candidate for the genetic material than protein.

Later life

Beginning in the 1950s, Chargaff became increasingly outspoken about the failure of the field of molecular biology, claiming that molecular biology was "running riot and doing things that can never be justified".[5] He believed that human knowledge will always be limited in relation to the complexity of the natural world, and that it is simply dangerous when humans believe that the world is a machine, even assuming that humans can have full knowledge of its workings. He also believed that in a world that functions as a complex system of interdependency and interconnectedness, genetic engineering of life will inevitably have unforeseen consequences. Chargaff warned that "the technology of genetic engineering poses a greater threat to the world than the advent of nuclear technology. An irreversible attack on the biosphere is something so unheard of, so unthinkable to previous generations, that I only wish that mine had not been guilty of it".

After Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins received the 1962 Nobel Prize for their work on discovering the double helix of DNA, Chargaff withdrew from his lab and wrote to scientists all over the world about his exclusion.[6]

He died on 20 June 2002 in Manhattan, New York City.[7]


Honors awarded to him include the Pasteur Medal (1949) and the National Medal of Science (1974).[8]

Books authored

  • Chargaff, Erwin (1978). Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life Before Nature. Rockefeller University Press. p. 252. ISBN 0-874-70029-9.
  • Serious Questions, An ABC of Sceptical Reflections. Boston, Basel, Stuttgart: Birkhäuser, 1986
  • Die Aussicht vom dreizehnten Stock. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1998.

See also


  1. Wright, Pearce (2 July 2002). "Erwin Chargaff: Disillusioned biochemist who pioneered our understanding of DNA". Obituaries. The Guardian. Retrieved 22 November 2011.
  3. Chargaff, Erwin; Stephen Zamenhof; Charlotte Green (May 1950). "Composition of human desoxypentose nucleic acid". Nature. 165 (4202): 756–7. Bibcode:1950Natur.165..756C. doi:10.1038/165756b0. PMID 15416834.
  4. "James Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and Rosalind Franklin". Science History Institute. Retrieved 20 March 2018.
  5. Newton, David E. (2016-12-12). DNA Technology: A Reference Handbook, 2nd Edition. ABC-CLIO. p. 189. ISBN 9781440850486.
  6. Judson, Horace (20 October 2003). "No Nobel Prize for Whining". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-08-03.
  7. Nicholas Wade (June 30, 2002). "Erwin Chargaff, 96, Pioneer In DNA Chemical Research". New York Times. Retrieved 2014-12-23. Erwin Chargaff, whose research into the chemical composition of DNA helped lay the groundwork for James Watson and Francis Crick's discovery of its double-helix structure -- the pivotal finding of 20th-century biology -- died on June 20 in a New York hospital. He was 96.
  8. National Science Foundation – The President's National Medal of Science


  • Erwin Chargaff Papers, American Philosophical Society
  • Chargaff obituary from The Guardian, July 2, 2002
  • Watson, James D.; Baker, Tania A.; Bell, Stephen B.; Gann, Alexander; Levine, Michael; Losick, Richard (2004). Molecular Biology of the Gene (5th ed.). Benjamin Cummings. ISBN 0-8053-4635-X.
  • The composition of the deoxyribonucleic acid of salmon sperm by E. Chargaff, R. Lipshitz, C. Green and M. E. Hodes in Journal of Biological Chemistry (1951) volume 192 pages 223-230.
  • Watson, James D. (1980) [orig. 1968]. The Double Helix: A personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA (critical ed.). Norton. ISBN 0-393-01245-X.

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