Margaret Oakley Dayhoff (1925-1983) is considered by many to be the founder of bioinformatics, a field that designs and applies computational methods to biology. Today, if someone is interested in a particular protein, they can look it up in online databases, similarly to looking up a word in an encyclopedia. Many of us take these databases for granted, but Dayhoff, faced with lots of data and only primitive computers (think punch-cards) didn’t have that luxury, so she created it.
Similar to how genes are made up of the DNA base “letters,” proteins are made up of amino acids. But, while there are only 4 DNA bases, there are 20 amino acids. Sometimes a scientist may know how a protein is “spelled” but not what it is or what it does. Dayhoff wanted to create an atlas of known proteins, so that researchers could look up their “mystery” proteins and see what’s known about them and how they may be related to other proteins. Even though there were less than 100 protein sequences known at the time, the large amino acid alphabet meant she was faced with a staggering amount of data, especially since each amino acid was typically represented by a 3-letter code. To help address this problem, she shortened these codes to single letters, making it easier for researches to search for a protein based on its spelling. The simplified code also helped her develop tools to compare the spelling of similar proteins and predict how they are related evolutionarily.
Dayhoff was born in Philadelphia in 1925. She received a PhD in chemistry from Columbia University followed by postdoctoral research at the Rockefeller Institute and the University of Maryland. She became a professor at Georgetown University Medical Center and associate director of the National Biomedical Research Foundation. She served as secretary and later president of the Biophysical Society. Dayhoff’s life was tragically cut short by a heart attack at the age of 57. The Biophysical Society established an award in her honor to support early career female biophysicists. Next time you use an online protein database, thank Margaret Oakley Dayhoff!
Photo credit: Ruth Dayhoff