Genetics: Timeline of key events

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The lambda phage has become a key tool in molecular biology and is important for genetic engineering. It has the advantage that it can be easily grown in E Coli and is not pathogenic except in the case of bacteria. Lederberg's discovery paved the way to understanding the transfer of genetic material between bacteria, the mechanisms involved in gene regulation and how piece of DNA break apart and recombine to make new genes. EM Lederberg, 'Lysogenicity in Escherichia coli strain K-12', Microbial Genetics Bulletin, 1, (1950), 5-9. 1950-01-01T00:00:00+0000Jeffreys, a British geneticist, pioneered the process for DNA fingerprinting, a technique that helps identify individuals based on their genetic makeup. It was based on his discovery in 1984 that each individual had unique numbers of repeated DNA fragments, called restriction fragment length polymorphisms, in their cells. 1950-01-09T00:00:00+0000HE Alexander and G Leidy, 'Transformation of Type Specificity of H. influenzae,' American Pediatric Society, French Lick, May 10, 1950.1950-05-10T00:00:00+0000G.R. Wyatt, 'Recognition and estimation of 5-methylcytosine in nucleic acids', Biochem J, 48/5 (1951), 581-4.1951-05-01T00:00:00+0000Szotak is a biologist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for helping to discover how chromosomes are protected by telomeres, a section of DNA at the end of a chromosome. He is also known for having constructed the world's first yeast artificial chromosome, a breakthrough that has helped scientists to map the location of genes in mammals and develop techniques for mapping genes. Szotak is also responsible for the development of a technique known as in vitro evolution of RNA which makes it possible to discover RNAs with desired functions. 1952-11-09T00:00:00+0000Herrick was an American physician and cardiologist who reported the first case of sickle-shaped red blood cells in 1910. These he found in the blood of a medical student from Grenada suffering from anaemia. Clinicians subsequently found that the condition, called sickle-cell anaemia, was inherited and was most common in black patients. Sickle-cell anemia was the first disease found to have a genetic cause. Herrick later also observed the first clinical features of coronary thrombosis. 1954-03-07T00:00:00+0000Pauling was an American chemist and biochemist who helped pioneer quantum chemistry and mechanics. He combined methods from x-ray crystallography, molecular model building and quantum chemistry. Pauling was the first to find the alpha helix structure of proteins. In 1954 he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his 'research on the nature of the chemical bond and its application to the elucidation of the structure of complex structures.' He also co-authored the first paper to suggest sickle-cell anaemia was a genetic disease, which introduced the concept of 'molecular disease'. Pauling also won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962, which was given for his opposition to nuclear weapons. 1954-10-31T00:00:00+0000Avery was a Canadian-American physician and bacteriologist who provided the first evidence that that genes are made up of DNA. In 1944 he and colleagues conducted a series of experiments in mice using two sets of bacteria, one smooth (virulent) and the other rough (nonvirulent), associated with pneumonia. In the first instance they injected the virulent bacteria into the mouse, which went on to die. Next they injected the non-virulent bacteria into a mouse, which survived. They then heated the virulent bacteria to kill it and injected it into a mouse, which survived. Following this they injected a mixture of heat-killed bacteria with the virulent bacteria into the mouse, which died. Finally they injected a mixture of harmless bacteria with DNA extracted from the heated lethal bacteria in a mouse which died. The experiment showed that the harmless bacteria became lethal when mixed with DNA from the virulent bacteria. 1955-02-02T00:00:00+0000The molecule was first observed by the American scientists Elliot Volkin and Lazarus Astrachan in experiments conducted with bacteriophage-infected Escherichia coli. Calling the new molecule 'DNA-like RNA', Volkin and Astrachan published their finding in 'Phosphorus incorporation in Escherichia coli ribonucleic acid after infection with bacteriophage T2', Virology, 2 (1956), 149-61. 1956-01-17T00:00:00+0000C.H. Waddington, The Strategy of the Genes: A Discussion of Some Aspects of Theoretical Biology (London, 1957).1957-01-01T00:00:00+0000The method, known as the T4 rII system, was developed by Seymour Benson. It involved cross-breeding two different r mutant strains of the T4 bacteriophage and recording when a recombination resulted in a normal rII sequence. Based on his mapping of over 2400 rII mutants Benzour provided the first evidence that the gene is not an indivisible entity and that genes are linear. S Benzer, 'On the Topology of the Genetic Fine Structure', PNAS, 45/11 (1959), 1607–20. 1959-11-01T00:00:00+0000McClintock noticed the phenomenon during her experiments with maize. She reported her findings to the annual symposium at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. 1961-01-01T00:00:00+0000Greider is best known for her discovery of telomerase, an enzyme made up of protein and RNA subunits that help elongate and protect chromosomes. The enzyme is found in fetal tissues, adult germ cells and also tumour cells. Greider made the discovery in 1984 when she was a graduate student of Elizabeth Blackburn. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2009 on the back of this work. 1961-04-15T00:00:00+0000M.F. Lyon, 'Gene action in the X-chromosome of the mouse', Nature, 190 (1961), 372–73.1961-04-22T00:00:00+0000The experiment was conducted by Sidney Brenner, Francois Jacob, and Matt Meselson and published as 'An unstable intermediate carrying information from genes to ribosomes for protein synthesis', Nature, 190 (1961), 576-81. They established the mRNA was responsible for transporting genetic information from the nucleus to the protein-making machinery in a cell. 1961-05-13T00:00:00+0000The phenomenon was observed in human fibroblasts (WI-38). It was named the 'Hayflick Limit' after Leonard Hayflick who discovered it. His work was published in L Hayflick, PS Moorhead, 'The serial cultivation of human diploid cell strains', Experimental Cell Research, 25/3 (1961), 585-621. The Hayflick Limit is now known to relate to genetic instability in aging cells and the development of cancer.1961-12-01T00:00:00+0000Werner Arber, Swiss microbiologist and geneticist, and his doctoral student Daisy Dussoix proposed that bacteria produce restriction and modification enzymes to counter invading viruses. They published their findings in 'Host specificity of DNA produced by Escherichia coli I and II', Journal Molecular Biology, 5 (1962), 18–36 and 37-49.1962-01-23T00:00:00+0000Fisher was a British statistician and geneticist who pioneered the use of statistical procedures to study Mendelian genetics and natural selection. His work helped lay the foundation for population genetics and modern statistical science. Between 1919 and 1934 he worked at the Rothamsted Experimental Station where he made major contributions to rational crop breeding programmes. He established a means to track the linkage of genes for different traits and introduced the principle of randomisation for preventing the introduction of bias in experiments. In his early life he was a prominent Eugenicist. 1962-07-29T00:00:00+0000John Burdon Sanderson Haldane was a geneticist, biometrician and physiologist who helped to open up new research paths into population genetics and evolution. He was responsible for the establishment of human gene maps for haemophilia and colour blindness on the X chromosome and was one of the first to suggest that sickle-cell anaemia can provide some immunity to malaria. Haldane is also remembered for establishing the principles for in vitro fertilisation and for coining the terms 'clone' and 'cloning' in human biology. He was also a strong populariser of science and a renowned socialist.1964-12-01T00:00:00+0000The code was worked out by Marshall Nirenberg with the help of his colleagues Heinrich Mathaei and Severo Ochoa. They showed that a sequence of three nucleotide bases (a codon) determined each of the 20 amino acids that make up proteins. The code was painstakingly worked out and recorded on a series of charts. Together these charts plotted out how a DNA sequence gets translated into an RNA sequence and in turn is translated into a protein sequence.1965-01-18T00:00:00+0000
Date Event People Places Sciences
Jan 1950Esther Lederberg discovered the lambda phageEsther LederbergUniversity of WisconsinBacteriophages, Genetics, Recombinant DNA
9 Jan 1950Alec Jeffreys was born in Oxford, UKJeffreysUniversity of LeicesterGenetics
10 May 1950Hattie E Alexander and Grace Leidy reported success using DNA to alter the hereditary characteristics of Hemophilus influenzaeAlexander, LeidyColumbia UniversityGenetics
May 19515-methcytosine isolated in nucleic acids for the first timeWyatt Epigenetics
9 Nov 1952Jack Szostak was born in London, United KingdomSzotakHarvard UniversityGenetics, RNA
7 Mar 1954James Bryan Herrick diedHerrick Rush Medical CollegeGenetics
31 Oct 1954Linus Pauling was awarded the Nobel PrizePaulingCalifornia Institute of TechnologyGenetics, DNA
2 Feb 1955Oswald T Avery diedAveryRockefeller UniversityDNA, Genetics
1956First observation of messenger RNA, or mRNAAstrachan, VolkinOak Ridge National LaboratoryDNA, RNA, genetics, mRNA
1957Conrad Waddington develops model of epigenetic landscape to show the process of cellular decision-making during biological developmentWaddngtonCambridge UniversityEpigenetics, Embryology
1 Nov 1959New technique published for mapping the gene shows genes are linear and could not be dividedBenzerPurdue University, California Institute of TechnologyDNA, genetics
1961'Jumping genes', transposable elements, discovered by Barbara McClintockMcLintockCold Spring Harbor LaboratoryDNA, Genetics
15 Apr 1961Carol W Greider was born in San Diego CA, USAGreiderJohns Hopkins University Genetics
22 Apr 1961Genes linked to X-chromosome inactivation in female mice embyosLyonCambridge UniversityEpigenetics, Embyology
13 May 1961Experiment confirms existence of mRNABrenner, Jacob, Meselson University of Cambridge, Pasteur Institute, California Institute of TechnologyDNA, RNA, genetics, mRNA
Dec 1961Normal cell population discovered to only be able to divide a limited number of times before it stopsHayflickWistar InstituteCell culture, Genetics, Oncology
23 Jan 1962Idea of restriction and modification enzymes bornArber, DussoixUniversity of GenevaRestriction enzymes, Recombinant DNA, DNA Sequencing, Epigenetics
29 Jul 1962Ronald Aylmer Fisher diedFisherRothamsted Experimental StationGenetics
1 Dec 1964JBS Haldane diedJBS HaldaneUniversity of Cambridge, University of California Berkeley, University of LondonGenetics, Biology, Physiology
18 Jan 1965First summary of the genetic code was completedNirenberg, Mathaei, OchoaNational Institutes of HealthDNA, Genetics

Jan 1950

Esther Lederberg discovered the lambda phage

9 Jan 1950

Alec Jeffreys was born in Oxford, UK

10 May 1950

Hattie E Alexander and Grace Leidy reported success using DNA to alter the hereditary characteristics of Hemophilus influenzae

May 1951

5-methcytosine isolated in nucleic acids for the first time

9 Nov 1952

Jack Szostak was born in London, United Kingdom

7 Mar 1954

James Bryan Herrick died

31 Oct 1954

Linus Pauling was awarded the Nobel Prize

2 Feb 1955

Oswald T Avery died


First observation of messenger RNA, or mRNA


Conrad Waddington develops model of epigenetic landscape to show the process of cellular decision-making during biological development

1 Nov 1959

New technique published for mapping the gene shows genes are linear and could not be divided


'Jumping genes', transposable elements, discovered by Barbara McClintock

15 Apr 1961

Carol W Greider was born in San Diego CA, USA

22 Apr 1961

Genes linked to X-chromosome inactivation in female mice embyos

13 May 1961

Experiment confirms existence of mRNA

Dec 1961

Normal cell population discovered to only be able to divide a limited number of times before it stops

23 Jan 1962

Idea of restriction and modification enzymes born

29 Jul 1962

Ronald Aylmer Fisher died

1 Dec 1964

JBS Haldane died

18 Jan 1965

First summary of the genetic code was completed

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