In 1949, a team led by chemist Linus Pauling placed hemoglobin solutions from people with a disabling form of anemia and from healthy volunteers in an electric field, and found that the two samples migrated at different rates. In this way, the technique of electrophoresis helped decipher the molecular abnormality behind sickle cell disease, the most common genetic disease among blacks.

Forty years and many modifications later, a variation of the same technique helped highlight the differences in DNA sequences among healthy volunteers and those whose lungs and pancreases had the life choked out of them by the mucus accumulation of cystic fibrosis, the most common genetic disease among whites.

Today, gel electrophoresis is indispensable in both research and clinical laboratories as a means of separating macromolecules such as nucleic acids and proteins. The wide variety of applications include determination of a gene's sequence, isolation of entire chromosomes, and separation...

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