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NIH Record - 75th Anniversary - National Institutes of Health

Remembering NICHD’s Rau

Dr. Donald Charles Rau

Dr. Donald Charles Rau

Dr. Donald Charles Rau, chief of NICHD’s macromolecular recognition and assembly section since 2002, passed away on Dec. 11 after a long battle with cancer.

Rau’s lab studies the forces, structure and dynamics of biologically important complexes to understand the macromolecules that control cellular functions. His work created a foundation for current and future generations of researchers to rationally design therapeutic agents that interfere with disease-associated complexes.  

“We have lost a dear friend, a wonderful colleague and a great mentor,” said Dr. Joshua Zimmerberg, an associate scientific director at NICHD. “Don was a humble researcher who did amazing research during his 36 years at the NIH.” 

Rau earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois in 1968 and his Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology from Harvard in 1975. He arrived at NIH in 1979 and stayed until he was no longer able to come to the lab. His observations and novel methods gave the world a unique perspective on biologically important recognition and assembly reactions, according to Zimmerberg. 

Rau almost single-handedly advanced the fundamental understanding of intermolecular forces, DNA packing and the importance of water in DNA-protein recognition. Along the way, he developed several practical tools such as using osmotic stress to study the physical properties and kinetics of DNA-protein complexes. By 2008, Rau established that the DNA long-range attractive force has twice the exponential decay length of its short-range repulsion. By 2010, he determined the dependence of the force amplitudes on DNA-associated cation charge.

“He was a bench scientist guided by his brilliant mind, his fertile imagination and a deep understanding of physics and chemistry,” said Zimmerberg. “Most, if not all, of his papers include experimental data that he himself generated.”

Rau also was an expert on the fundamentals of DNA packing by protamines, which are small proteins found in the nucleus. He felt that exploring the controlled replacement of histones by protamines would be essential for understanding the role of and damage caused by defects in DNA packing.

Rau’s family organized a “Celebration of Don’s Life.” They request that any gifts in his memory go to the American Cancer Society, the Children’s Inn at NIH, the Foundation for the NIH or the NIH Clinical Center’s Patient Emergency Fund.  

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