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NIH Record - 75th Anniversary - National Institutes of Health

Scientist Emeritus Cabib Is Mourned

Dr. Enrico Cabib

Dr. Enrico Cabib

Dr. Enrico Cabib, retired NIH principal investigator and valued colleague and friend, died Feb. 24. His scientific mind and sense of humor enriched NIH since 1967, when he joined NIDDK as a principal investigator. 

While training many of the best people in his field, Cabib also shared a passion for the bench, and continued his lab work throughout his career.

As a postdoc in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the early 1950s, Cabib discovered the second and third sugar nucleotides, the sugar donor function of sugar nucleotides and the first sugar transfer reaction. With these revelations, Cabib helped his professor, Dr. Luis Leloir, win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1970 for uncovering sugar nucleotides that synthesize carbohydrates in mammals.  

Subsequently, Cabib discovered glycogen synthesis in yeast and demonstrated the enzymatic synthesis of mannan—one of the major polysaccharides in the yeast cell wall—before coming to NIH. 

At NIH, Cabib studied carbohydrate polymers in the cell wall of the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae and their role in morphogenesis, the biological process that causes a cell, tissue or organism to develop its shape. The result was a series of important findings. 

In his first experiment at NIH, he discovered chitin synthetase, a polymer of N-acetylglucosamine that comprises the skeleton of insects and is a minor but crucial component of the yeast cell wall.  

Cabib’s work had an important impact on clinical medicine as well. 

In 1988, he pointed out that some of the yeast cell wall components are not found in people, but are common among fungi, making them apt targets for anti-fungal agents. Other laboratories have now discovered specific inhibitors of an enzyme studied by Cabib that are currently used to treat fungal infections in people.

According to his daughters, Cabib’s greatest discovery was that he and Leloir’s administrative secretary, Amalia Aribe, were eminently compatible. They were married for 62 years and had three children: Claudia, Leila and Cintia.

Cabib remained a leader in his field and discovered most of what is known about the biochemistry and genetics of the yeast cell wall. Despite incredible achievement, he stayed humble until, after 45 years at NIDDK, he retired in 2012 at age 87 as senior investigator in the morphogenesis section of the Laboratory of Biochemistry and Genetics. 

“I am not terribly smart, but I am persistent, and any success I’ve had has been a product of that persistence,” he said in an interview at the time.

To read more about Cabib’s life, check out his autobiography, “Climbing the yeast cell wall,” online at https://bit.ly/3TC99zo.

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