Stanford University microbiologist Esther Miriam Zimmer Lederberg, a trailblazer for female scientists and the developer of laboratory techniques that helped a generation of researchers understand how genes function, has died at Stanford Hospital.
Professor Lederberg, who lived at Stanford, was 83 when she died Nov. 11 of pneumonia and congestive heart failure.
She discovered the lambda phage, a parasite of bacteria that became a key tool for the laboratory study of viruses and genetics, and was the co-developer with her husband [Nobel prize winner Joshua Lederberg] of replica plating, a technique for rapid screening of bacteria for desired mutations.
“She developed lab procedures that all of us have used in research,” said cancer researcher Stanley Falkow of the Stanford University School of Medicine.
She was also a pioneer of women’s rights, becoming a full professor at a time when women were rare on the faculties of Stanford and other major universities. “She was a real legend,” said Dr. Lucy Tompkins of Stanford.
(More after the jump…)
She laid the groundwork for demonstrating how phages can transfer genes between bacteria, and her findings were crucial to advancing the understanding of how genes are regulated, how pieces of DNA break apart and recombine to make new genes, and how the process of making RNA from DNA is started and stopped.
Building on her work, Joshua Lederberg won the 1958 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries on how bacteria swap genes.
The article notes how she not only pioneered this early work in phage genetics, but also worked on a method for replica plating bacterial colonies, initially using a rather unorthodox method:
Although the team eventually settled on sterile velvet cloth for the transfer, the original experiments were performed using the makeup applicator from Esther’s compact.
Anyone who’s done experiments mutating bacteria has probably used one of the techniques that are possible because of her work. I still cringe when thinking about all the replica plating I’ve done in my day, and my PhD research heavily used phage to move transposons between bacterial strains.
The article also discusses her interests other than science; sounds like she would have been a fascinating lady to know.
(Image from http://www.sfgate.com/c/pictures/2006/11/28/ba_obit_lederberg.jpg)