Autobiography of Herbert W Boyer
The American Boyer family began with the immigration of Jacob Bayer from Germany in 1709, with a change of the family name occurring at a later date. The Boyers were originally farmers and tradesmen. My father and grandfathers worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad. My grandfather died when my father was thirteen years of age and at that time he left school to support his family. My mother was a high school graduate when she married my father, and my sister and I were born shortly thereafter. My youth centered around athletics and out door activities. In my first year of high school I had little interest in my academic studies but loved football, basketball and baseball. My football and basketball coach also taught all of the science and most of the mathematic courses.
Not only was he a great coach, he also was a talented teacher. This man brought about a significant change in my ambitions and I excelled in all of his courses. I managed to overcome my initial academic delinquency and I entered St Vincent College, the first Benedictine College in the United States, in 1954. Shortly thereafter I became familiar with the seminal work of Watson and Crick establishing the molecular structure of DNA. I graduated in 1958 with an AB degree in Biology and Chemistry. After failing to enroll in a medical school, I decided to attend graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, and pursue my interests in genetics, which had been stimulated by the Watson and Crick publication of 1953. I became engaged in an overly ambitious research project for my thesis, using microbial genetics, to elucidate the genetic code. I managed to generate enough data to write a thesis on the structure of a set of related genes in lieu of my original goal, which had been solved very elegantly by others, and received my PhD degree in 1963.
As chance would have it, during the course of research for my thesis, I came upon some interesting phenomenology, affecting the transfer of chromosomal DNA from one strain of bacteria to another. I continued research on this when I went to Yale University to learn more about microbial plasmids. My mentor, Professor Edward Adelberg, encouraged me to pursue my graduate research. I demonstrated that my observations were based on the restriction and modification of DNA, whose molecular basis had been described by Werner Arber. I then began to isolate and characterize the enzymes postulated to be the basis of the restriction and modification of DNA.
In 1966 I joined the University of California, San Francisco, as an Assistant Professor of Microbiology. My research programme centered on restriction endonucleases and modification methylases as model systems for elucidating how proteins recognize unique sequences of DNA, and for generating unique fragmentation of small bacterial plasmids and viruses. This research led to the discovery of the first DNA endonucleases to generate termini at unique sites in the DNA with overlapping sequences. Having an interest in vitro recombination of DNA dating to my years at Yale University, I realized that these enzymes could be used to this end. After some initial frustration with experiments on in vitro recombination of DNA, largely due to inadequate technology, I began a collaboration with Professor Stanley N Cohen, at Stanford University. Professor Cohen had discovered a small bacterial plasmid and we found that it could be cut once by one of our DNA endonucleases. This allowed us to take any piece of DNA cut by this same enzyme and recombine it with the cleaved plasmid, insert it into a bacterial cell, and recover the recombined DNA molecule. This became known as recombinant DNA technology. My laboratory continued to explore the improvement of this technology with the development of plasmids with more efficient and flexible utility. We engaged in a project with Drs. A. Riggs and K. Itkura at the City of Hope Hospital in Pasadena, CA, to demonstrate that chemically synthesized DNA could be recombined with natural DNA and recovered as a viable and functional molecule. With the development of techniques for determining the sequence of nucleotides in a DNA molecule, in vitro recombination, and the ability to chemically synthesize DNA a new horizon appeared.
At this time I was approached by a young venture capitalist, Robert Swanson, inquiring about the feasibility of starting a company based upon the above-mentioned technologies. After several discussions we obtained funding to demonstrate that it was possible, by using chemically synthesized DNA to direct bacteria to produce a human protein. With this proof of concept we proceeded to form the first biotechnology, Genentech, Inc.
The extraordinary technological and scientific advances of the last quarter of a century have generated scientific, genetic engineering and biotechnology achievements that were unimaginable to me as I started graduate school in 1958.
9 September 2004, Hong Kong