James Dahlberg: Scientific successes enhanced by chance

Asked why he became a biochemist, Jim Dahlberg reflected briefly and answered, “I always found science exciting, interesting, and relatively easy. I just thought that it would be the most rewarding way to spend my life. And once I was introduced to the world of biochemistry I was hooked.”

Dahlberg completed his PhD at the University of Chicago in the mid-1960s, and then did postdoctoral research in Cambridge, England and in Switzerland, working with Nobel laureate Fred Sanger, as well as with investigators in Geneva and Zürich. As a post-doc, he developed and used methods to analyze structures of RNA molecules.

In 1969, Dahlberg joined the faculty of the Department of Physiological Chemistry (now Biomolecular Chemistry) in the Medical School of the University of Wisconsin–Madison and was promoted to full professor in 1974. “I decided to come to UW–Madison because of its excellent reputation in the biological sciences, particularly biochemistry. And I was also attracted by the quality of life in Madison, both at the university and elsewhere. The intellectual and social environments were very stimulating, and I find that still to be the case. I have always enjoyed interacting with UW–Madison students and faculty.”

At the university, Dahlberg continued to do research on RNA and DNA. He acknowledges the importance of chance in being a successful scientist. By happy coincidence, he lived near Howard Temin, who later won a Nobel Prize for his discovery of an enzyme, reverse transcriptase, that is essential for the replication of many viruses that cause cancers and infections such as HIV-1.

“I have been very fortunate because my current position as associate director lets me continue to contribute to a wonderful institution and to associate with great friends and colleagues.”
James Dahlberg

“Howard and I often walked three miles together to the university and discussed our work on the way. That led me to undertake experiments that resulted in identification of ‘primer’ RNA molecules that reverse transcriptases need in order to start working. I am also fortunate in being married to a brilliant scientist, Elsebet Lund, who has worked in my laboratory for almost my entire career. Elsebet and I also work well together at home, where we have raised two daughters, who are now independent scientists themselves.”

Although he focused on curiosity-driven research, Dahlberg has had a keen interest in seeing discoveries put to practical uses. In the early 1990s, he realized that an enzymatic reaction being studied in his laboratory could be very useful in detecting genetic mutations. He and his co-workers worked with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) to obtain patents on the technology and enzyme.

“Then I had another stroke of luck,” he says. “On my way to a scientific conference in New Mexico, I happened to sit next to Lloyd Smith, a UW–Madison chemistry professor. We discussed using my technology as the basis of a company to detect variations in genes. Soon, we founded Third Wave Technologies in Madison, with the participation of Lance Fors, a friend of Lloyd’s from their time together as students. Third Wave did very well and in 2008 it was purchased by Hologic.”

Dahlberg retired from UW–Madison in 2005 and is now an Emeritus Professor of Biomolecular Chemistry, where he still runs a small laboratory. In 2010, Chancellor Biddy Martin asked him to be the chancellor’s representative on the Board of Directors of the Morgridge Institute for Research, a position that he still holds. When the Executive Director of Morgridge resigned in 2012, he was asked to serve as Interim Director.

“They brought me back in from the pasture. Perhaps I was chosen because I was very familiar with both the university and Morgridge — and I was unemployed,” he adds jokingly. “But I was glad to step in when needed, and to be of service until we found a permanent CEO, Brad Schwartz. Again I have been very fortunate because my current position as Associate Director lets me continue to contribute to a wonderful institution and to associate with great friends and colleagues.”