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La carrière scientifique de Vittorio Luzzati

Vittorio Luzzati (1923 - 2016) a oeuvré toute sa carrière — dans les pas du grand J.D. Bernal — à la prise en compte de structures moléculaires dans l’étude de phénomènes biologiques.

Born in Genoa, Vittorio’s University degree in mechanical engineering was obtained in Buenos Aires were his family had found refuge from Italian fascism in 1938. He settled in France and integrated the CNRS in 1947, working first in Paris where he learned the theory and practice of X-ray diffraction as a means to determine molecular structure (of inorganic materials) and made important theoretical contributions. Biological molecules – proteins – entered the picture in 1953. David Harker invited Vittorio along with another illustrious visitor, Francis Crick (who became a lifelong friend), to join the Protein Structure Project at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn and work on theoretical aspects of the project, focused on ribonuclease structure. Protein crystallography was barely in its infancy at the time (the first protein structure – myoglobin – was published by John Kendrew in 1958).

Vittorio’s career as an independent investigator and research director began when he returned to France at the end of 1953. He installed an X-ray laboratory at the Centre de Recherches de Macromolécules in Strasbourg, and continued from 1963 in Gif-sur-Yvette, at the Centre de Génétique Moléculaire, where he remained through the rest of his career. In Strasbourg he began studies of lipids and lipid polymorphism, the area of his most brilliant and original contributions. An international colloquium « From lipids to membranes » was organized in Paris in 1998 by Lucienne Letellier, Jean Charvolin and Annette Tardieu in honour of Vittorio Luzzati for his 75th birthday.

Vittorio Luzzati’s laboratory at the Centre de Génétique Moléculaire provided a highly international and very stimulating environment. First of all, for his many direct collaborators working on various aspects of lipid structure and polymorphism, lipid-protein organisation and membranes. The laboratory was also favourable for other important projects in which Vittorio did not participate directly, such as the first protein structure determined by X-ray crystallography in France (methionyl tRNA synthetase in the subgroup of Jean-Loup Risler, Charles Zelwer and Claude Montheillet) or understanding how cristallin organisation explains eye lens transparency (subgroup of Annette Tardieu). The concept of order/disorder of biological polymers and assemblies played an important part in the laboratory’s use of physics to not only solve structures but to understand biology.

Vittorio maintained close ties throughout his life with leading members of the structural biology community in continental Europe, England and the United States. He was long time editor of the Journal of Molecular Biology, member of the EMBO and was influential in starting the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg.

Others have commented that Vittorio Luzzati’s geographical mobility as an exile from Mussolini’s Italy paralleled his intellectual mobility in applying physics and X-ray diffraction to biological problems. Vittorio himself has reflected on his life and career in "Une vie à raconter" published in 2011 (editions HD Témoignages).

Linda Sperling
14 June 2016

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