Advertisement

Seymour Benzer dies

The Scientist intern Jonathan Scheff reports: Seymour Benzer, whose research into the structure and function of genes as well as the connection between genes and behavior laid the foundation of modern genetics, died on Friday, November 30, at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena. He was 86. linkurl:David Anderson,;http://www.dja.caltech.edu a colleague at the California Institute of Technology, where Benzer was a professor of neuroscience, in a statement called Benzer "a giant in science... He star

By | December 5, 2007

The Scientist intern Jonathan Scheff reports: Seymour Benzer, whose research into the structure and function of genes as well as the connection between genes and behavior laid the foundation of modern genetics, died on Friday, November 30, at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena. He was 86. linkurl:David Anderson,;http://www.dja.caltech.edu a colleague at the California Institute of Technology, where Benzer was a professor of neuroscience, in a statement called Benzer "a giant in science... He started an entire field, and few people can claim to have done that." In the 1950s, scientists believed genes to be indivisible units strung along the chromosome, like "beads on a string," as Benzer said in a 1991 linkurl:interview;http://resolver.caltech.edu/CaltechOH:OH_Benzer_S for Caltech's Oral History Project. Benzer-- inspired by Guido Pontecorvo in Glasgow--wondered if scientists considered genes indivisible simply because they couldn't observe the gene at a fine enough resolution. Benzer worked with the bacterium Escherichia coli and the T4 bacteriophage to observe recombination events on a finer scale than previously possible, providing the first linkurl:evidence;http://www.the-scientist.com/pubmed/16589677 (PNAS 41(6):344, 1955) that a gene consists of distinct sub-units. His paper on thr topic has been cited more than 350 times, according to ISI, and his research led to a system of fine genetic mapping that revolutionized the field of genetics. Benzer had not always been a geneticist. He completed his PhD in solid-state physics at Purdue in 1947. He continued working at Purdue in the physics department, but became increasingly interested in biology, especially after reading Erwin Schrodinger's What is Life? He published his paper on the fine structure of the gene in 1955, and transferred to Purdue's biology department in 1958. Benzer became a professor of biology at Caltech in 1967, where he eventually began identifying genes associated with specific behaviors, using behavioral mutants of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. In a paper published in 1971 that has been cited more than 800 times, he identified genes associated with linkurl:circadian rhythms;http://www.the-scientist.com/pubmed/5002428 (PNAS 68(9):2112, 1971). linkurl:More recently;http://www.the-scientist.com/pubmed/9794765 (Science 282:856, 1998), he identified a gene that increased the lifespan of fruit flies, which he called "Methuselah" after the Biblical character who lived 969 years. Over the course of his career as a physicist and biologist, he published approximately 120 papers. Benzer's cross-disciplinary scientific curiosity characterized his career. "It's always very refreshing to be able to just make a clean break, start over again with something you're completely ignorant about," he said in the CalTech interview. "That's very exhilarating; nothing's expected of you because you're a novice. And with luck, you come up with something that other people were saying was impossible because they know too much." Besides his pioneering work in genetics, Benzer was also known for his blunt honesty and sense of humor. Even though he won numerous awards such as the Gairdner Award both in 1964 and 2004, the Lasker Award in 1971, and the Albany Medical Center Prize in 2006, he said in the interview that his mother always wanted him to win the Nobel Prize, because her neighbors hadn't heard of all his other prizes. In the interview, Benzer reminisced on his year at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge from 1957 to 1958, where he worked alongside linkurl:Francis Crick,;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/22317/ linkurl:Sydney Brenner,;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/12927/ linkurl:James Watson;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/14345/ and linkurl:Leslie Orgel.;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/53817/ He said: "Life in the lab drove me a bit wild. You'd come in in the morning, about 10:30 or so, and there would be coffee time. Then there was a little time to work; then it was lunchtime. Then you'd come back after lunch and before you knew it, it was tea time. And then you were home." He laughed and added, "The English always seemed to be drinking coffee and tea and taking it easy, playing cricket. And they got all these Nobel Prizes." Benzer's first wife, Dorothy Vlosky, died in 1978. He is survived by his second wife, Carol Miller, as well as three children -- Barbara Freidin, Martha Goldberg and Alexander Benzer -- stepsons Renny and Douglas Feldman, and four grandchildren. Correction (December 19, 2007): A previous version of this post listed an incorrect citation for the discovery of the longevity gene, Methuselah. The Scientist regrets the error.
Advertisement

Follow The Scientist

icon-facebook icon-linkedin icon-twitter icon-vimeo icon-youtube
Advertisement

Stay Connected with The Scientist

  • icon-facebook The Scientist Magazine
  • icon-facebook The Scientist Careers
  • icon-facebook Neuroscience Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Genetic Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Cell Culture Techniques
  • icon-facebook Microbiology and Immunology
  • icon-facebook Cancer Research and Technology
  • icon-facebook Stem Cell and Regenerative Science
Advertisement
Advertisement
Life Technologies