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Maxine Singer

        Science | American Biologists

Singer, Maxine (1931-) is an American biochemist and geneticist who has been a leading voice in the debate over the issues and ethics surrounding the development of recombinant DNA techniques, which combine DNA fragments from different types of cells or transplant them from one form of life to other forms. The technique has the potential of creating new types of organisms.

Maxine Frank Singer received her Ph.D. degree in biochemistry from Yale in 1957. From 1956 to 1958, she worked as a U.S. Public Health Service postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in Bethesda, Maryland. From 1958 to 1974, she served as research chemist on the staff of the section on enzymes and cellular biochemistry. In 1974, she became chief of the NIH's section of Nucleic Acid Enyzymology, Division of Cancer Biology and Diagnosis (DCBD), at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda. In 1980, she became chief of the DCBD's Laboratory of Biochemistry. In 1988, Singer became president of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C. She continues to conduct genetics research for the National Cancer Institute as scientist emeritus.

In 1973, shortly after the first successful creation of recombinant DNA, or “spliced” genes, the discussion of the ethics and safety of manipulating genetic material began to rage. Singer helped the NIH formulate guidelines for safely conducting such research. She worked to clarify for laymen the potential benefits that such technology could bring to the study of disease, particularly in the understanding of serious and incurable disease, and to address public fears that the use of recombinant DNA was dangerous or immoral.

Singer's more recent studies have focused on a large family of repeated DNA sequences known as LINES—sequences interspersed many times in mammalian DNA. She and her colleagues have been especially interested in LINE 1, which repeats thousands of times in human DNA. They have focused their experiments on how LINE 1 elements move, believing that the mechanism of LINE 1 transposition may have broad significance for understanding genetic diseases. Singer has also researched cures for cancer and hemophilia.