of Science and Poetry
away from a long conversation with Masayori Inouye, and playful
is the first descriptive word that comes to mind about this
scientist. Playful? That's what he is when he talks about
his legendary work in genetics and biochemistry.
Inouye, PhD, chair of UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School's
department of biochemistry.
In the science of genomics and the laboratory
world of miniature RNA cellular movement, you don't expect
to discover anything but sober, intellectual effort. Yet,
evidence of Masayori Inouye's playful spirit abounds. Old
jokes are framed on his wall, as well as a tongue-in-cheek
submission by Inouye requesting to have his scientific work
entered into The Guinness Book of World Records.
More important than the Guinness Book, Inouye's
name appears on the ISI Highly Cited website, where he is
acknowledged as one of the 250 most cited researchers in the
world. The author of 571 manuscripts and nine books, including
Histidine Kinases in Signal Transduction (November 2002),
Inouye has made major contributions to science, including
membrane biogenesis, structural and functional studies of
histidine kinases, propeptide (intramolecular chaperone) mediated
protein folding (related to Mad Cow disease), discovery of
bacterial reverse transcriptases and multicopy single stranded
DNA (msDNA) and the cold shock response and adaptation in
E.coli. Although he is proud of his scientific publications,
Inouye is equally proud of the publication of two books of
poetry, which he authored in Japanese.
Though his parents were Japanese citizens,
Inouye, who received his BA, MA and PhD from Osaka University
in Japan, was actually born in China, where his family resided
for 13 years. "My father was a scientist who traveled a lot
and died when I was seven years old. His influence on my career
choice was indirect. It was my mother who inspired me to go
into science," Inouye recalls. Even now, however, his father's
indirect presence is still there. Framed under glass on a
bookshelf near the door are several black and white antique
postcards sent home by his father from all over the world.
"There's the Chrysler Building in New York,"
he says. "And this one here was mailed in 1928. It depicts
Madame Curie's laboratory in France." He pulls the card with
a picture of the Eiffel Tower from beneath the glass so he
can translate the Japanese characters. His father was there
in Paris to observe the researchers trying to understand radioactivity.
"See here, my father writes that he is impressed by the number
of women working alongside men in the lab."
Inouye came to the United States in 1968 as
a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University. He decided
to stay on, preferring the American research climate, which
is less rigid than in Japan. From 1971 through 1975, he was
an associate professor of biochemistry at the State University
of New York, Stony Brook. He also served as chairman of the
Department of Biochemistry at Stony Brook from 1975 through
1977, and as a professor of biochemistry from 1975 through
Inouye has been part of the RWJMS faculty
since 1987. However, his ties to old friends have remained
secure. Just three years ago, a Japanese friend, Ikunoshin
Kato, PhD, President of Takara Bio., Inc., with whom he collaborated
on a published paper in 1960, pledged $2 million to support
the new Takara Bio. Endowed Chair in Bioinformatics at RWJMS.
Over the years, the department of biochemistry at RWJMS has
also welcomed many Japanese postdoctoral fellows, who have
returned home and advanced into positions of power in business
In the highlights from 100 years of science
at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in NY, world renowned
for its cutting edge research, where one particular scientist
is applauded for each particular year, Inouye holds the record
for 1983 because of his discovery of micRNA. He points out
this distinction with obvious pleasure.
Twenty years ago, Inouye and two collaborators
(Takeshi Mizuno and Mei-Yin Chou) demonstrated that small
RNA could inhibit 95 percent of the activity of a major protein
in the E. coli bacteria. This breakthrough is still being
built upon by today's genetic research pioneers, who have
been using the notion of RNA activity to understand disease
pathways and potential drug targets. Even though most recently
published papers on RNA don't credit his finding, Inouye shrugs
off any scientific slight. "That's just the way things go,"
The story behind the story of micRNA is a
good one, he says. Other researchers had been discovering
organic microRNA in nature. In fact, the letters m-i-c in
micRNA technically stand for mRNAinterfering complementary
RNA. Micro, small, or interfering RNA are miniature strands
of ribonucleic acid, which control the chemical activities
in a cell. "Depending on the field, they called it different
names...sometimes miRNA, sometimes siRNA or RNAi," he explains.
Before Inouye's breakthrough in the mid-1980s,
no one understood that small RNA represented a new mechanism
for gene regulation or that RNAs could be used to protect
living cells from viral (bacteriophage) infection. He's even
more excited about recently finding a new enzyme, through
which virtually every messenger RNA can be cut and targeted.
"I am interested in how cells function and looking for applications
"First published in 1984, our original work
is considered one of the milestones in biotechnology, a classic
paper on genetic engineering. Here it is," he says, pulling
out a copy of "The Use of RNAs Complementary to Specific mRNAs
to Regulate the Expression of Individual Bacterial Genes."
Proudly, he also reaches for a large volume, Milestones in
Biotechnology: Classic Papers on Genetic Engineering. "That
was the first time it was shown how RNA functions in nature
and then we immediately decided to construct an artificial
micRNA system," Inouye says. "I've always worked in basic
research but it is also a lot of fun looking for translational
applications. This is the way my mind works. If you find something
in nature, then why not try to do it artificially?"
There's more to this micRNA story, however.
Inouye laughs as he moves toward his conclusion - a long-kept
secret literary twist. "Mizuno proposed calling it micRNA
not just because it was messenger interfering complementary
but because the m stands for Mizuno, the i stands for Inouye
and the c for Chou. No one knows this."