A Conversation with David Usher

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David Anthony Usher was born in Harrow in the UK on November 1st, 1936, and emigrated with his family to Wellington, New Zealand in 1948. After a year at Wellesley College in Days Bay he became a boarder in Grey House at Wanganui Collegiate School. He attended Victoria University of Wellington where he received a BSc (1958) and MSc with First Class Honours (1960). He then moved to Cambridge, England, where he received a PhD in Chemistry, working with D. M. Brown. After two year’s postdoctoral at Harvard University with Frank Westheimer, he joined the faculty at Cornell University in the Department of Chemistry where he has remained ever since. His early work was on the mechanism of the enzyme ribonuclease, where he identified two possible geometries for the reaction, in-line or adjacent. In subsequent work he showed that the mechanism was in-line for both steps. This work led to a prediction that if RNA were 2’,5’-linked, instead of 3’,5’-linked as it is in nature, it would hydrolyze more rapidly when it was part of a double helix. By contrast, he predicted that 3’,5’-linked RNA would be stabilized by becoming part of a double helix. Later work in the Usher laboratory showed that this prediction was correct. In addition, this work suggested a possible mechanism for the formation of RNA under prebiotic conditions. Usher was one of the first to see the potential for what has become known as antisense technology, and developed a novel amide-linked oligonucleotide analog. In more recent years, Dr Usher has turned his attention to possible mechanisms for the prebiotic formation of the peptide bond using novel oligonucleotide templates, as a model for the origin of protein synthesis. His interest in the Origin of Life is broad, and includes collaborative research with Jonathan Lunine of Cornell’s Department of Space Sciences, investigating possible chemical evolution on Saturn’s moon Titan. In addition to his research activities in chemistry, Usher has appeared as the tenor lead in thirteen Gilbert and Sullivan shows that were mounted by the Cornell Savoyards. He has a national ranking in the top 20 in tennis doubles in his age group. With his partner Dale Wise, he won the gold medal for tennis doubles in his age group at the 2013 National Senior Games in Cleveland.

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Cornell History; Chemistry; Chemical Biology


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