John Michael Bishop was born on 22nd February 1939 in York, Pennsylvania, to a Lutheran minister. After eight years of excellence in elementary school, it would be during his high school years that he would find the passion for science in his friendship with Dr. Robert Kough, his family physician, who sparked in him the curiosity in the fields of medicine and human biology.
He entered Gettysburg College for preparation for medical school, and later attended Harvard. It was there that Professor Bishop found the path to science through investigation. On his second year, thanks to Dr. Benjamin Castleman and Dr. Edgar Taft, Professor Bishop became a practiced pathologist and discovered his passion for molecular biology. However, that area would remain beyond his grasp for four more years. In the meantime, Professor Bishop started studying animal virology under the guidance of Professor Elmer Pfefferkorn, albeit with not much success.
Despite not intending to practice medicine, Professor Bishop was accepted at Massachusetts General Hospital, having later received their Warren Triennial Prize, in 1983. He then started researching as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, in a program designed to train physicians in research. There, Professor Bishop experimented with the replication of poliovirus, first under the tutelage of Professor Leon Levintow and later under Professor Gebhard Koch’s, who lead Professor Bishop to Germany for a year, again with little investigative success.
Then, in 1986, he returned to the U.S., accepting an offer by Professor Levintow at the University of California, San Francisco, where Professor Bishop continued his study of poliovirus and, later, retroviruses (then known as Rous Sarcoma Virus). Soon after, the discovery of the reverse transcriptase by Dr. Howard Temin and Professor David Baltimore gave researchers the tools needed to investigate in-depth the workings of viral RNA and DNA. Along with his colleagues, Professor Bishop would then describe the mechanisms of the reverse transcription of RNA, as well as the characterization of viral RNA in infected cells, and the identification and description of viral DNA in both normal and infected cells.
Along with Harold Varmus and other colleagues, Professor Bishop investigated the mechanisms of how the Rous Sarcoma Virus transforms normal tissue into neoplastic tissues. Such transformation was already described as being consequence of the src gene. They would discover that the src gene is what we now call a proto-oncogene: a modified cellular gene that is integrated into the retroviral genome, and converted to a cancer gene by mutation. They used one variant of Rous virus, which contained an oncogenic gene, and another variant, which lacked this gene. By using these viruses, they managed to construct a nucleic acid probe, allowing to selectively identify the oncogene, which was used to search for the corresponding genetic material in DNA from different cells. They found that oncogene-like material could be detected in different species throughout the animal kingdom, even in simple organisms comprising only a few cells.
This investigation would lead to Varmus and Bishop co-receiving the 1989 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, and it now plays an important part on the foundation of our current knowledge on tumor development.
In the following years, they would consolidate their evidence for retroviral transcription through the expression of retroviral oncogenes, as well as the contribution of genetic damage and oncogenes to the genesis of human cancer, and their function in normal organisms.
Professor Bishop is a Professor at the UCSF Department of Microbiology and Immunology, since 1973, and also at the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, since 1982.
Professor Bishop also received several Doctor of Science Honoris Causa from various Universities, as Gettysburg College (1983) and Harvard (2004).
If someone offered Professor Bishop the possibility of reincarnation, he would prefer the career of a performing musician with great talent, specificaly, in a string quartet. Although he is also a self-confessed book addict, reading almost everything that he catches, he does not enjoy science fiction and crime novels.
Professor Bishop was also the reason of a wager between UC Berkeley faculty member Mike Botchan and Arthur Levinson, Bishop’s staff scientist at the time. They bet that if Professor Bishop won a Nobel Prize before August 18, 1993, Levinson would receive 300 dollars from Botchan. If not, Levinson would pay 100 dollars to Botchan.