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Biologist Boris Magasanik dies at 94

Pioneer in gene regulation transformed MIT’s Department of Biology as department head from 1967 to 1977.
Boris Magasanik
Boris Magasanik

Boris Magasanik, the Jacques Monod Professor Emeritus of Microbiology, passed away on Dec. 25 at his home in Cambridge. He was 94.

Magasanik was recruited by Salvador Luria to join MIT’s Department of Biology in 1960, leaving his post as a professor of bacteriology at Harvard Medical School to help the Institute establish a presence in the then-new field of molecular biology. In the succeeding years, Magasanik crossed disciplinary boundaries between metabolic biochemistry, enzyme regulation, microbial genetics and physiology, and molecular biology, becoming a pioneer in the study of gene regulation.

From 1967 to 1977, Magasanik was head of the Department of Biology, leading a period of growth marked by outstanding and imaginative faculty hiring, says Chris Kaiser, who is a MacVicar Professor of Biology at MIT. Throughout his long career, Magasanik was an accomplished and inspiring teacher of both undergraduates and graduate students. His devotion to teaching, Kaiser said, helped establish the biology department as a center of excellence not only for research, but also for education.

Magasanik taught several different courses at MIT. Graham Walker, who is an American Cancer Society Research Professor of Biology at MIT, who co-taught a course on microbial physiology with Magasanik for more than three decades, remembers his remarkable ability to weave together various perspectives as he brought the scientific material to life. In 1998, Magasanik helped establish a “lecture/discussion” course, called “Biological Regulatory Mechanisms,” that required undergraduates to read and write about primary research literature, says Alan Grossman, the Praecis Professor of Biology, who started the course with Magasanik. Magasanik continued to teach in both courses until 2010.

Born in Kharkov, Ukraine, on Dec. 19, 1919, Magasanik spent his formative years in Vienna, pursuing his university degree until the Nazis expelled all Jews from university studies. He then moved to New York, in 1938, where he completed his bachelor’s degree at City College of New York. During World War II, Magasanik served in the U.S. Army as a medical technician, spending more than three years in Europe.

After the war, Magasanik returned to New York to pursue his PhD at Columbia University, receiving his degree in 1948. He spent more than a decade at Harvard Medical School, and then joined MIT in 1960 — in part, out of a desire to teach both undergraduate and graduate students.

A member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the Institute of Medicine, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Magasanik received many honors, including the NAS’s Waksman Award in 1993 and the Abbott-ASM Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000. Over the course of his career, Magasanik published many influential papers, primarily on microbial physiology and the regulation of gene expression in yeast and bacteria.

For most of his career, Magasanik studied how microbial cells alter expression of metabolic enzymes in response to available nutrients. He was the first to demonstrate nitrogen regulation, which is the process by which bacterial genes required for the assimilation of nitrogen are regulated by the amount of nitrogen available in their environment. His studies of nitrogen regulation in bacteria led Magasanik to fundamental discoveries in bacterial gene regulation, including the identification of a special form of RNA polymerase needed for transcription of nitrogen-regulated genes, and the delineation of the mechanism of conserved intracellular signaling circuits in bacterial cells known as two-component systems.

Magasanik played a central role in shaping the trajectory of the Department of Biology at MIT, Kaiser says, steering it toward the burgeoning field of molecular biology. During his time as department head, the department nearly doubled in size and recruited world-class scientists to MIT. After his tenure, “the department was rated as one of the best, if not the best, biology department in the country,” says professor emeritus of biochemistry Gene Brown, who succeeded Magasanik as department head and later served as dean of the School of Science.

Highly regarded by his peers, Magasanik was known for the extraordinary breadth of his knowledge. “He was a brilliant polymath,” recalls Kaiser, who met Magasanik as a graduate student in the 1980s. As knowledgeable as Magasanik was in the classroom, he showed unparalleled erudition outside it as well, Kaiser said: “He could speak intelligently about an enormous number of subjects, from history to arts of all different cultures. Boris was a true Renaissance man.”

As a scientist, teacher, mentor, and friend, Magasanik had a profound effect on the lives of many. While on sabbatical in Jacques Monod’s lab at the Pasteur Institute in Paris in 1959, he and his late wife, Adele, took it upon themselves to teach English to Agnes Ullmann, a microbiologist who is now retired from the Pasteur Institute.“Boris had a phenomenal general culture; we went often to exhibitions and Boris was a perfect guide,” Ullman says. “We will all miss Boris, because he was an exceptional human being and a great friend and scientist.”

Magasanik was predeceased by Adele, his wife of many years, in 1991. He is survived by his second wife, Helen Donis-Keller; his stepdaughter, Christine Donis-Keller, and her husband, William Seeley; and by two grandchildren, Parker and Raines.

Plans are underway for a memorial service to be held at MIT. Gifts in Magasanik’s memory can be sent to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston or to Sancta Maria’s Windsor House in Cambridge.

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