Joan A. Steitz

Joan A. Steitz

Joan Argetsinger Steitz is a molecular biologist at Yale University, famed for her discoveries involving RNA, including ground-breaking insights such as that ribosomes interact with mRNA by complementary base pairing and that introns are spliced by snRNPs, small nuclear ribonucleoproteins which occur in eukaryotes (such as yeasts and humans).


Steitz grew up in Minnesota in the 1950s and 60s at a time when there were virtually no female role models in molecular biology. She attended an all-girls high school.

She received her B.S. in chemistry from Antioch College, Ohio, (1963), where she first became interested in molecular biology at Alex Rich's MIT laboratory as an Antioch "coop" intern.

After completing her B.S., Steitz applied to medical school rather than graduate school since she knew of female medical doctors but not female scientists. [ASCB Profile, Joan Argetsinger Steitz, June 2006, available at .] She was accepted to Harvard Medical School, but having been excited by a summer working as a bench scientist in the laboratory of Joseph Gall at the University of Minnesota, she declined the invitation to Harvard Medical School and instead applied to Harvard's new program in biochemistry and molecular biology. Steitz was the first woman to matriculate in Harvard's graduate program (Ph.D. 1967). There, she was the first female graduate student to join the laboratory of James D. Watson, with whom she first worked on bacteriophage RNA. [Margaret A. Woodbury, "Trailblazer Turned Superstar," "HHMI Bulletin", Feb. 2006, available at .]

Steitz did her postdoc at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge (UK), where she interacted with Francis Crick, Sydney Brenner, and Mark Bretscher. At the MRC, Steitz focused on the question of how bacteria know where to start the "reading frame" on mRNA. In the process, Steitz discovered the exact sequences on mRNA at which bacterial ribosomes bind to produce proteins. In 1969 she published a seminal "Nature" paper showing the nucleotide sequence of the binding start points. [J.A. Steitz, "Polypetide Chain Initiation: Nucleotide Sequences of the Three Ribosomal Binding Sites in Bacteriophage R17 RNA," "Nature" Dec. 6, 1969, v. 224, no. 5223, pp. 957-964.]

In 1970, Steitz joined the faculty at Yale. In 1975, she published the research for which she is most famous, demonstrating that ribosomes use complementary base pairing to identify the start site on mRNA. [Joan Argetsinger Steitz and Karen Jakes, "How Ribosomes Select Initiator Regions in mRNA: Base Pair Formation between the 3' Terminus of 16S rRNA and the mRNA during Initiation of Protein Synthesis in Escherichia coli," "PNAS", Dec. 1, 1975, v. 72, n. 12, pp. 4734-4738.]

In 1980, Steitz published another critical paper, identifying the novel entity snRNPs and their role in splicing. [Lerner MR, Boyle JA, Mount SM, Wolin SL, Steitz JA, "Are snRNPs involved in splicing?", "Nature" Jan. 10, 1980, v. 283, no. 5743, pp. 220-224.] A snRNP is a short length of RNA, around 150 nucleotides long, that are involved in splicing introns from newly transcribed RNA (pre-mRNA) -- spliceosomes. Steitz's paper "set the field ahead by light years and heralded the avalanche of small RNAs that have since been disocvered to play a role in multiple steps in RNA biosynthesis," noted Susan Berget. [ASCB Profile, Joan Argetsinger Steitz, June 2006, available at .]

Steitz later discovered another kind of snRNP particle, the snoRNP, demonstrating conclusively that introns are not "junk DNA" as they had often been described. Her work helps explain the phenomenon of "alternative RNA splicing." [Fact|date=March 2007] Part of the reason her discovery is so important is that it explains how humans are able to have only double the number of genes of a fly. "The reason we can get away with so few genes is that when you have these bits of nonsense, you can splice them out in different ways," she said. "Sometimes you can get rid of things and add things because of this splicing process so that each gene has slightly different protein products that can do slightly different things. So it multiplies up the information content in each of our genes." [Elaine Carey, "Female scientist 'a hero in her field': Yale's Joan Steitz, 65 honoured", "Toronto Star" April 3, 2006, p.A04; available at .]

Steitz's research may yield new insights into the diagnosis and treatment of autoimmune disorders such as lupus, which develop when patients make antibodies against their own DNA, snRNPs, or ribosomes.

Steitz has commented on the sexist treatment of women in science, noting that a woman scientist needs to be twice as good for half the pay. [(""Unless you know what's going on inside the department, it all looks perfectly reasonable. If a woman is a star there aren't that many problems. If she is as good as the rest of the men, it's really pretty awful. A woman is expected to be twice as good for half as much.") "The Reluctant Feminist," "The New York Times", April 8, 2001.] She has been a "tireless promoter of women in science," noted Christine Guthrie, who described Steitz as "one of the greatest scientists of our generation." [ASCB Profile, Joan Argetsinger Steitz, June 2006, available at .]

Steitz has served in numerous professional capacities, including as scientific director of the Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund for Medical Research (1991-2002) and as editorial board member of "Genes and Development".

Steitz (then Joan Argetsinger) married Thomas Steitz, now also a professor of biophysics and biochemistry at Yale, in 1966. They have one son who played baseball with the Milwaukee Brewers for three years and then entered Yale Law School.

eminal Papers

* J.A. Steitz, "Polypetide Chain Initiation: Nucleotide Sequences of the Three Ribosomal Binding Sites in Bacteriophage R17 RNA," "Nature" Dec. 6, 1969, v. 224, no. 5223, pp. 957-964.
* Joan Argetsinger Steitz and Karen Jakes, "How Ribosomes Select Initiator Regions in mRNA: Base Pair Formation between the 3' Terminus of 16S rRNA and the mRNA during Initiation of Protein Synthesis in Escherichia coli," "PNAS", Dec. 1, 1975, v. 72, n. 12, pp. 4734-4738.
* Lerner MR, Boyle JA, Mount SM, Wolin SL, Steitz JA, "Are snRNPs involved in splicing?", "Nature" Jan. 10, 1980, v. 283, no. 5743, pp. 220-224.


* [ Albany Medical Center Prize] (shared with Elizabeth Blackburn) (2008)
* Rosalind E. Franklin Award for Women in Science, National Cancer Institute (2006)
* Gairdner Foundation International Award (2006)
* E.B. Wilson Medal (2005), American Society for Cell Biology
* Member, Institute of Medicine (2005)
* RNA Society Lifetime Achievement Award (2004)
* The Caledonian Research Foundation (CRF) Prize Lectureship in Biomedical Sciences and Arts and Letters (2004), Royal Society of Edinburgh
* The Howard Taylor Ricketts Award, University of Chicago (2004)
* Excellence in Science Award (2003), Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology (FASEB)
* Thirty-First Annual Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Science (2002), Brandeis University
* UNESCO-L'Oréal Award for Women in Science (2001)
* Novartis-Drew Award in Biomedical Research (1999)
* Sterling Professor (1998) of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University
* City of Medicine Award (1996)
* First Weizmann Women & Science Award (1994), [ American Committee for the Weizmann Institute]
* Member, American Philosophical Society (1992)
* Christopher Columbus Discovery Award in Biomedical Research (1992)
* Warren Triennial Prize (1989) (shared with Thomas Cech)
* Dickson Prize for Science (1988), Carnegie-Mellon University
* Radcliffe Graduate Society Medal for Distinguished Achievement (1987)
* National Medal of Science (1986), National Science Foundation
* Lee Hawley, Sr. Award for Arthritis Research (1983)
* Member, National Academy of Sciences (1983)
* Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1982)
* U.S. Steel Foundation Award in Molecular Biology (1982)
* Eli Lilly Award in Biological Chemistry (1976)
* Passano Foundation Young Scientist Award (1975)
* Numerous honorary doctorates (eleven as of June 2006) and degrees

Notes and References

"Additional references"
* Tanya Talaga, "Her work may lead to progress in diseases like lupus," "Toronto Star" (Ontario ed.), Oct. 26, 2006, p. A10.
* Joan Steitz, "The Importance of Role Models to Girls' Educational Choices," April 6, 2006, L'Oréal Agora, available at
* Joan Steitz, Interviews, Cold Spring Harbor Digital Archives, Oral History Collection, available at
* Elga Wasserman, "The Door in the Dream: Conversations with Eminent Women in Science" (Joseph Henry Press: Washington, D.C., 2000), pp. 144-150.
* "RNA Interviews: Dr. Joan Steitz", "Ambion TechNotes" v. 10, n. 1 (March 2003) (available at ).

External links

* [ Yale faculty biography]
* [ Steitz lab website]

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