Professor Kjeld Marcker - one of the major pioneers of molecular biology – died

Together with Nobel Laureate Fred Sanger, Kjeld Marcker revealed that protein synthesis initiation was dependent on a completely different mechanism than expected, as all proteins were synthesised using a very special methionine initiator tRNA. Also, Kjeld Marcker's research group was the first to clone and determine the DNA sequence of the gene for leghemoglobin, which was just the second plant gene in the world to become fully DNA sequenced. Professor Kjeld Marcker died on 10 February 2018 at the age of 85.

2018.02.26 | Lisbeth Heilesen

Kjeld A. Marcker. Photo: Anne Marcker

Kjeld Marcker was born in Nyborg (Denmark) on 27 December 1932. In 1958, he graduated in biochemistry from the University of Copenhagen followed by employment at the Department of Physical Chemistry and later at the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Copenhagen as an assistant professor.

In 1963, on his own initiative, Kjeld Marcker managed to join Professor F. Sanger, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1958. The stay with Professor Sanger at the Medical Research Council, Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, England, which lasted until 1970, was of extreme importance for Kjeld Marcker's research career. One year after his arrival at Cambridge, Kjeld Marcker and Sanger published an observation that surprisingly showed that protein synthesis initiation was dependent on a completely different mechanism than expected, as all proteins were synthesised using a very special methionine initiator tRNA. The two researchers’ results attracted international attention, and Marcker and Sanger can therefore be credited for the revelation of the most basic mechanism behind the initiation of one of the main processes of biology.

Together with Brian F. C. Clark, Kjeld Marcker continued to study the topic at the MRC in Cambridge. The time in Cambridge thus placed Kjeld Marcker in the research elite, but his ambitions for a professorship and own department led Marcker to accept an offer by Professor Niels Ole Kjeldgaard of a professorship in biochemistry at a newly established Department of Biochemistry at Aarhus University in Denmark. However, this department immediately merged with the Department of Molecular Biology, which Kjeldgaard had established in 1968. Kjeld Marcker became professor at the Department of Molecular Biology in 1970. Brian F.C. Clark also joined Aarhus University - encouraged by Marcker – where he was awarded a professorship in the Division of Biostructural Chemistry at the Department of Chemistry, and some years later, this group moved to the Department of Molecular Biology.

In the early 1970s, many molecular biologists realised that the study of bacterial molecular biology no longer offered the same challenges or funding opportunities as before. Several researchers began to do research on more complex organisms such as mammals. Inspired by a merger between the Department of Plant Physiology and the Department of Molecular Biology at Aarhus University, Marcker and his research group decided to throw themselves into a new scientific field - the molecular biology of plants.

In 1972, the American researcher Paul Berg and his colleagues published an article that laid the foundation for recombinant DNA technology (genetic engineering) that opened up the possibility of genetically changing a given organism. As Kjeld Marcker could see the potential in this technology, he introduced it at his department in the late 1970s as a tool for understanding the cooperation between nitrogen-fixing Rhizobium bacteria and legumes. The plants formed root nodules infected with the Rhizobium, and the root nodules contained a protein called leghemoglobin. Marcker and his colleagues wanted to clone the gene for this protein, hoping to find that it was evolutionarily related to the animal globins. For some time, Marcker had been puzzled by the presence of hemoglobins specifically in root nodules and not in other plant tissues. By using the new gene technology, Marcker's research group was the first to clone and determine the DNA sequence of the gene for leghemoglobin, which was just the second plant gene in the world that had become fully DNA sequenced. The analyses led to the interesting conclusion that the plant gene leghemoglobin was evolutionarily related to the animal hemoglobin.

Kjeld Marcker also understood the importance of making his unique knowledge available to the Danish biotechnology companies. Thus, Kjeld Marcker worked for the period 1979-1982 as a consultant for Novo (now Novo Nordisk) in their efforts to produce recombinant proteins in microorganisms for drugs, and educated molecular biologists seeking to work in industry. Kjeld Marcker also initiated an early collaboration with the Danish Sugar Factories to develop sugar beet with better cultivation characteristics.

As a member of various Danish research committees, associations and councils, Kjeld Marcker was highly research-politically active for the benefit of the entire molecular biology/biotechnology research in Denmark.

Kjeld Marcker received the Norwegian Anders Jahre award in 1971 and the Novo Prize in 1973. He was an elected member of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, the Danish Academy of Technical Sciences and the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO).

Kjeld Marcker retired in April 2002.

In memory of Kjeld Marcker.

Erik Østergaard Jensen, Head of Department
Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics
Aarhus University, Denmark

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