Obituary: Margarita Salas (1938–2019)

Obituary: Margarita Salas (1938–2019)

On November 7, 2019, Margarita Salas, the most international Spanish scientist, died in Madrid at the age of 80. Her whole life was an example of dedication to science. She had a central role in the introduction of Molecular Biology to Spain. Her scientific achievements are found in the main university textbooks. Her prolific career, more than 60 years dedicated to research, and the school of researchers that have been trained under her tutelage allow her legacy to be continued.

Margarita Salas was born in Asturias (Spain) in 1938. The atmosphere of culture and freedom that she breathed in her family's home led her to study at a university, something unusual for a woman in those years.

In 1955, she moved to Madrid to study for a degree in Chemistry at the Complutense University of Madrid. In 1958, she met Severo Ochoa who would win the Nobel prize in 1959, a friend of the family, who encouraged her to devote herself to the study of Biochemistry.

She did her doctoral Thesis with Alberto Sols (Spanish National Research Council, CSIC), working on the anomerization and specific properties of the glucose phosphate isomerase.

In 1964, after marrying the biochemist Eladio Viñuela, and finishing her PhD, they joined Severo Ochoa’s laboratory at New York University. In this laboratory, using Escherichia coli, Margarita made seminal contributions to the basic mechanisms of transcription and translation.

Back in Spain in 1967, she joined the Biological Research Center (CIB-CSIC) in Madrid, where she decided to study the genetic and molecular bases of the bacteriophage ø29 which infects Bacillus subtilis. To this model system Margarita Salas devoted all her scientific career in Spain. The results arrived soon; Margarita analyzed phage genetics including transcription by purifying and characterizing the RNA polymerase of the host bacterium B. subtilis. This achievement was very remarkable and led to an invitation from James Watson to present her data at the Cold Spring Harbor symposium on transcription.

Severo Ochoa and Margarita Salas, in 1986.

In 1977 she moved to the “Severo Ochoa Molecular Biology Center” (CBMSO) in Madrid. Margarita Salas’s laboratory was always a hub of ideas.

From her lab, technological innovations were introduced and Spanish biochemists formed. She was the main driving force for the introduction of Molecular Biology as a new discipline in our country.

One of her group’s greatest achievements was the discovery of the unique properties of the DNA polymerase of ø29, the most profitable patent of the CSIC. These properties allowed both circular and linear DNA to be amplified by a mechanism called isothermal multiple displacement amplification, which has been an alternative to DNA amplification by PCR.

In recognition of her exceptional scientific career, Margarita Salas was recognized in June 2019 by the lifetime achievement award from the European Patent Office.

Many of the researchers that were trained by Margarita Salas are now outstanding research leaders, ensuring that her legacy will continue in academia and research centers. In 2017, the Nature Journal co-awarded her the prize “Nature Award for Mentoring in Science”.

Margarita Salas awarded an honorary degree
by the University of Malaga, in 2009.

Margarita was the recipient of numerous other awards and recognitions. Among them we should highlight the Presidency of the Institute of Spain, an organization that brings together all the Spanish Royal Academies. In 2007, she became the first Spanish member of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States. From 1988 she was a member of the Royal European Academy, and of the Royal Academy of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences. In 2003 she was the first woman biochemist member of the Royal Spanish Academy of the Language. She was also appointed honorary degrees by many universities.

She was also the first woman to be president of the Spanish Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (SEBBM), between 1988 and 1992.

Margarita Salas has been our reference. Her loss is unrecoverable, but we will honor her memory by working from the SEBBM to generate opportunities for scientists and young researchers, as well as to give voice and visibility to Spanish science. As she always claimed, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology has to be considered in Spain as an essential part of our country’s science and culture.

This is a translated version of an article first published on the website of the Spanish Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology: "In Memoriam: Margarita Salas - December 2019", DOI: