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Harold A. Scheraga (10/18/1921–8/1/2020): A pioneering scientist who laid the foundations of protein science in the 20th century
Friday, 2021/02/26 | 08:25:00

Hagai Meirovitch and Ivet Bahar; PNAS February 23, 2021 118 (8) e2026796118


Figure: Harold A. Scheraga. Image credit: Cornell University, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.


Harold Abraham Scheraga, an eminent Professor of chemistry and biophysics at Cornell University for 73 years, died on August 1, 2020 at the age of 98. Scheraga (known to his colleagues as Harold) has been a pioneer in the general field of macromolecules (polymers, proteins, DNA, and so forth). He started his own research in 1947 (when proteins were viewed just as ellipsoids of colloidal assemblies of amino acids), contributing vigorously to the progress in this field until his death. Unlike most scientists, his studies encompassed both experimental and theoretical–computational disciplines. He targeted this wide research area together with more than 400 researchers he trained as students, postdoctorates, and research associates, leading to an enormous output of around 1,400 papers. This exceptional activity is also reflected by the more than 50 honors Harold received from universities and companies around the world. He became an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1966), an elected member of the US National Academy of Sciences (1966), and the American Advancement of Art and Sciences (1967).


Protein science has become a highly active well-established field with extensive information on the structure and function of proteins based at the atomic level. A breakthrough in this field shook the structural biophysics world 2 weeks ago: AlphaFold, a deep-learning–based computing system has been declared to have solved the 60-year-old “protein-folding” challenge. At the heart of this success is the training of the AlphaFold artificial intelligence system using 170,000 structures deposited in the Protein Data Bank, in addition to sequence data. Data-driven studies are now interwoven in our tools for discovery in a diversity of disciplines. We have come a long way since the 1975 data-driven study of Tanaka and Scheraga applied to the protein-folding problem (23). This was the first time the concept of learning from data on protein structures (approximately two dozen resolved then) was introduced to the field to extract the so-called “knowledge-based parameters” for assisting in protein-folding simulations. While it was then premature to expect limited data and methods to solve the problem, this is one of several studies that Harold conceptualized ahead of his time and may have been overlooked among the sheer volume of work he contributed to the scientific community. A closer look at some of the earlier work of Harold Scheraga, where protein science was in its infancy, portrays him as a pioneer with monumental contributions, who helped lay the foundations of this field.



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