Erwin Chargaff

Understanding DNA

About Erwin Chargaff

Erwin was born on August 11, 1905 in Chernovtsky, Ukraine. He went to the University of Vienna in 1923 and studied chemistry. In 1928, he moved to the United States to study at Yale. Then, in 1930, he moved back to Europe and worked at the Bacteriology Department of the University of Berlin. Once Hitler rose in Germany, he left, and in 1933, he transferred to the Pasteur Institute in Paris. He worked on bacterial pigments and polysaccharides. In 1935, he returned to the United States to become an assistant professor of biochemistry at Columbia University.

He died in New York City on June 20, 2002. He was 96 years old.

Erwin's Discoveries

Chargaff's research began when he read Oswald Avery's report that the herdity units and genes were composed of DNA. After six years of research, he summarized his findings in 1950. His two main discoveries included that in any double-stranded DNA, the number of guanine units equals the number of cytosine units and the number of adenine units equals the number of thymine units. He discovered the regularities among these four chemical units, known as bases, pointing directly to its role as the hereditary material of living organisms.

His second discovery was that the composition of DNA varies from one species to another, also known as Chagaff's Rules.

His research helped lay the groundwork for James Watson and Francis Crick's discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA. In 1952, he sat down and discussed his results with the two. They helped him figure out the reason for the regularity with the bases, which he failed to notice before.