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George Wells Beadle

        Science | American Biologists

Beadle, George Wells (1903-1989) shared the 1958 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with biochemists Edward Lawne Tatum and Joshua Lederberg for discovering that genes regulate specific chemical processes in cells.

On the advice of a high school science teacher, Beadle went to the College of Agriculture at the University of Nebraska, where he became interested in corn genetics. After completing a doctorate in genetics at Cornell University, he went to the California Institute of Technology. There he joined the genetics laboratory of Thomas Hunt Morgan, who had done pioneering work on fruit fly genes. As Beadle studied inherited characteristics, he began to believe that genes influenced heredity by regulating chemical reactions. Work with embryologist Boris Ephrussi at Caltech in 1934 and in Paris in 1935 illuminated aspects of gene action but suggested that further advances would require more sophisticated tools.

In the late 1930's, Beadle began to collaborate with Tatum at Stanford University in California. In 1941, they discovered a way of using a red bread mold to analyze the genetic control of biochemical processes in living cells. Beadle and Tatum concluded that each gene controls the production of a specific enzyme and that a mutation in a gene results in an abnormal enzyme incapable of catalyzing a particular step in a chain of reactions. Their one-gene, one-enzyme concept redirected the field of genetics from the study of physical characteristics of organisms to the production of biochemicals. Their work opened the way for the analysis of DNA and to an understanding of the mechanism of the genetic code. Their laboratory was able to get funding during World War II (1939-1945) by designing projects that benefited nutritional science and improved mass production of penicillin.

In 1946, Beadle returned to Caltech to become chairman of the Division of Biology, which he guided into the era of molecular biology. In 1961, he became president of the University of Chicago, which he steered through social turmoil. On his retirement in 1968, he remained at Chicago as distinguished service professor and resumed the research on the origin of maize.