In memoriam: Molecular biologist Masayasu Nomura

Masayasu Nomura, a molecular biologist and professor emeritus of genetics at UW-Madison, who studied the structure that forms proteins inside cells here between 1963 and 1984, passed away on Nov. 19 at age 84 in California.

Nomura’s scientific focus was the ribosome, a structure in the cell of all organisms that, under genetic control, assembles the proteins necessary for cellular chemistry and structure.

Using techniques that would be considered primitive today, Nomura performed the amazing feat of disassembling and reassembling the ribosome in a test tube. He discovered how mutations in this machine could make bacteria resistant to antibiotics, and dissected the pathways by which cells control growth through formation of proteins and RNA in ribosomes.

Millard Susman was hired in the same year as Nomura.

“After his arrival in Madison,” Susman says, “he decided that although the ribosome field was very competitive and he wanted to avoid the rat race, he found they were irresistible, so he entered the field, and became Mr. Ribosome. He and his grad students deciphered the mechanism that allows the ribosome to make proteins, taking exact instruction from the genes.”

“We occupied neighboring labs in genetics and had daily contact,” Susman adds. “He’d talk about what was going on, and I would feel appropriately inadequate. He was really doing earth-shattering research.”

“He was one of the most incredibly skilled and influential scientists, but he never got as much credit as he deserved,” says Richard Burgess, a professor emeritus of oncology, who collaborated on several papers with Nomura. “He just had a fantastic ability to see what needed to be done, and do beautiful experiments to push knowledge forward, and kept going and kept going. I have huge respect for him, as a scientist and a person who was extremely generous and supportive of me when I was a young scientist.”

Susman says Nomura, who emigrated from Japan after World War II, was “extremely hard working, he spent hours and hours reading the literature, and was amazingly brilliant at finding ways to answer scientific questions. He was a magical laboratory worker, and his productivity was just amazing. If he had been more assertive, he probably would have won a Nobel Prize.”

In 1984, eager to live near more Japanese-Americans, the Nomuras moved to California, where Nomura became the Grace Bell Professor of Biological Chemistry at the University of California-Irvine.

At both universities, Nomura mentored generations of graduate and postdoctoral students. He was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Academy of Microbiology, National Academy of Sciences, and the Royal Netherlands and Danish Academies of Science.

Basic biology still benefits from Nomura’s insights, Susman says. “His exploration of the ribosome revealed an astonishing fact of biology: that the parts of some structures can spontaneously come together to form a functioning complex.

“Nomura showed that the 22 pieces of a ribosomal sub-unit could be put into a test tube and, under the right conditions, they would just glom together into a working structure.  It was as if you put a bunch of gears and springs in a box, gave it a shake, and opened it to find that they had come together into a working cuckoo clock. Amazing.”

by David Tennenbaum, UW Communications