Daniel Nathans was born on October 30, 1928, in Wilmington, Delaware. In 1950, Nathans received a B.S. in Chemistry from the University of Delaware, and then a M.D. in 1954, from Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri.
Following graduation, he took an internship at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York. He then moved to Maryland, where he worked as a Clinical Associate at the National Institute of Health. From 1957 to 1959, Nathans returned to the Medical Center in New York to became a Resident in Medicine.
Nathans was a guest investigator (1959-1962), at Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in Fritz Lipmann’s (Nobel Prize recipient in 1953) laboratory. In 1962, he accepted a position at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the Department of Microbiology. In 1972, he was elected the Boury Professor and Director of the Department of Microbiology. Nathans remained at John Hopkins until retirement, only leaving for a year in 1969, to be the American Cancer Society Scholar at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.
In 1978, Nathans was awared the Nobel Prize in Medicine, along with Werner Arber and Hamilton Smith, for the discovery of "restriction enzymes and their application to problems of molecular genetics". In addition to receiving the Nobel Prize, Nathans was awarded National Academy of Sciences’ U.S. Steel Foundation Award in Molecular Biology in 1976. In 1977, he was also selected as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Nathans died on November 16, 1999.
The following press release from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences describes Nathans' work:
“Restriction enzymes provide the "chemical knives" to cut genes (= DNA) into defined fragments. These may then be used (1) to determine the order of genes on chromosomes, (2) to analyse the chemical structure of genes and of regions of DNA which regulate the function of genes, and (3) to create new combinations of genes. These techniques open up new avenues to study the organisation and expression of genes of higher animals and to solve basic problems in developmental biology. In medicine, increased knowledge in this area should help in the prevention and treatment of malformations, hereditary diseases and cancer.
Dan Nathans pioneered the application of restriction enzymes to problems of genetics. He works in Baltimore at the same university as Smith. All his contributions in this area of research were made during the 1970's. Nathans uses in his experiments the small DNA from a simian virus, called SV40, but his results are of general significance. In his first communication from 1971 he showed that the restriction enzyme discovered by Smith cleaves SV40 DNA into 11 well defined fragments. In this communication Nathans also discussed other possible applications of restriction enzymes in genetics and in a brilliant way predicted much of the later development. Nathan's publication from 1971 no doubt served as a major source of inspiration for scientists who subsequently started to use restriction enzymes. Two years later he described the cleavage patterns of SV40 DNA obtained with two additional restriction enzymes. He could then piece together the fragments obtained from the three cleavages and construct the complete genetic map of SV40 DNA, the first obtained by a chemical method. The general approach designed by Nathans for SV40 was later used by other scientists for mapping increasingly complex DNA structures. The map of SV40 DNA was further refined by other scientists. Today we know the complete nucleotide sequence of the molecule and thus can write the complete chemical formula for all the genes of an animal virus. Nathans himself continuously contributed new ideas and developed new methods for the application of restriction enzymes to genetic problems and has continuously been a main source of inspiration in this field of research.”