Benzer, Seymour (1921-), an American geneticist, is one of the founders of modern behavioral geneties. A pioneer in genetics, his research has helped revolutionize human understanding of genes and how they affect behavior. In 1998, he and his associates announced their discovery of the “Methuselah” gene in fruit flies. This mutated gene extends the average life span of the Drosophila fruit fly by about one-third. The discovery has important implications about the nature of aging in humans and has led to speculation about whether the human aging process can be manipulated.
Benzer has also contributed significantly to the understanding of the structure and function, of the gene. In 1954, he discovered that genes could separate into smaller units that could recombine into a new gene called a mutant. He is also credited with making one of the first detailed maps of the internal structure of a gene.
Benzer was born in New York City. He received his Ph.D. in physics from Purdue University in 1947. While at Purdue, he discovered a germanium crystal that was later used in the development of the transistor, the device that controls the flow of electric current in electronic equipment. Though a successful career in electronics seemed likely at that point, Benzer chose to pursue his interests in biology. He worked with a number of esteemed scientists at such prestigious facilities as the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and the Pasteur Institute in Paris and accepted a professorship in biology at Cal-tech in 1967. In 1975, he also became professor of neuroscience. At Caltech, Benzer began his study of fruit flies, which he uses as a model for identifying genes of a similar nature in humans.