Professor Joshua Lederberg: Molecular biologist who developed the new science of bacterial genetics and won a Nobel Prize at 33

Joshua Lederberg, one of the pre-eminent scientists of the 20th century, was only 33 when he was awarded the 1958 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for work showing that bacteria were capable of genetic recombination. The presentation of the award specifically mentioned conjugation (frequently referred to as "sex in bacteria") and transduction.

Both of these discoveries were fundamental to the development of molecular biology and biotechnology as we know it today. Many of the procedures that investigators now use, and take for granted, derive from those early investigations.

Born in 1925 in Montclair, New Jersey, Joshua was the eldest of the three sons of Zvi Hirsch Lederberg, and his wife Esther, who had emigrated from Palestine as a newly married couple the previous year. In spite of his father's initial disapproval, Joshua became captivated by science at a very early age and devoted his life to scientific inquiry. He attended Stuyvesant High School in New York, which emphasised training in science and technology, and graduated at the age of 15.

In 1941 he matriculated at Columbia University, obtaining a BA with honours in Zoology in 1944. While at Columbia he worked in the laboratory of Francis J. Ryan, who became an important mentor. In 1946, with Ryan's encouragement, Joshua Lederberg went to the laboratory of Edward L. Tatum at Yale University, specifically to try to demonstrate genetic recombination in bacteria. Tatum had recently moved to Yale from Stanford University in California, bringing with him mutants of a strain of bacteria, Escherichia coli K-12, which proved crucial to the experiments Lederberg wished to perform. It was with these mutants that genetic exchange in bacteria was first demonstrated.

Good luck contributed substantially to the success of this enterprise. Only about 5 per cent of the various strains of E.coli are capable of mating; fortunately K-12 was one them. It was also fortunate that Tatum had moved from far-off California to Connecticut, or the collaboration might not have been possible. A further advantage was the fact that Tatum had already isolated double mutants of K-12, making it possible to do the critical experiments in less time than would have otherwise been required. The results were first published that same year ("Gene recombination in Escherichia coli" in Nature, 1946).

The collaboration with Tatum led to a PhD from Yale in 1947, followed swiftly by a move to the University of Wisconsin in Madison where Lederberg had been offered a faculty appointment. The years at Madison (1947-59) were highly productive. Together with his wife, Esther Zimmer, whom he married in 1947, his students and his colleagues, Lederberg developed the new science of bacterial genetics. Information about genetic recombination was extended, new bacterial mutants were isolated, new combinations of mutants produced, and new phenomena described.

The genetic exchange he had first observed, known as conjugation, depended on contact between bacteria. It did not occur if the bacteria were not mixed together. In Madison a new type of genetic exchange was discovered which Lederberg called "transduction". Transduction was first observed in derivatives of Salmonella, and subsequently in E.coli. Transduction depends not on contact between bacteria but on bacterial viruses that incorporate fragments of the bacterial chromosome and transfer them to other bacteria in which the fragments become functional.

As the genetics of E.coli became more clearly understood, and more experimentally tractable, this bacterium became an increasingly popular laboratory organism, not only for genetic investigations but also for biochemical studies that provided the foundation for the area of scientific inquiry known as molecular biology.

It was for these achievements that Lederberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1958, sharing it with George W. Beadle and Edward L. Tatum. His contributions to science and society, however, had only begun.

In 1957 he became concerned about the biological implications of space exploration. Sending objects to the moon, for example, might contaminate it and make it impossible to answer fundamental questions about the origin of life, while returning objects might bring back organisms that could cause catastrophic epidemics on earth. To address these concerns, he became a founding member of the Space Science Board and advised the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) on the importance of "exobiology", a term he coined for the study of life beyond earth and its atmosphere.

In 1959 Lederberg moved to Stanford University where he organised the Department of Genetics in the School of Medicine. Here he continued investigations into bacterial genetics as well as exobiology, and, being a true polymath, extended the reach of his interests into computer science and its applications to medicine and chemistry. A few examples of these activities are: the establishment of the Instrumentation Research Laboratory which employed engineers to devise instruments that could detect life on other planets; the development of a national computer network (SUMEX-AIM) to host biomedical research projects; and the collaboration to develop Dendral, a program designed to apply "artificial intelligence" to problems in chemistry and medicine.

One aspect of these activities was that they brought together experts in fields that might otherwise never have interacted with each other: chemists with computer scientists, engineers with geneticists, for example. The outcomes were often unforeseen and synergistic. While at Stanford, in 1966, Joshua and Esther divorced, and two years later he married Marguerite Kirsch.

Lederberg left Stanford in 1978 and returned to New York City as President of Rockefeller University. He reinvigorated the university both intellectually and physically. He appointed talented investigators, emphasising research on biomedical problems, and was the catalyst for the construction of new buildings to provide housing and laboratory space for investigators.

He also continued to serve on various national and international advisory committees, addressing various concerns including emerging infections, internet access, and educating the public about science. In 1989 he was awarded the US National Medal of Science by President George Bush.

Lederberg "retired" in 1990, becoming President Emeritus of Rockefeller, but continued his research activities as Raymond and Beverly Sackler Foundation Scholar and Professor Emeritus of Molecular Genetics and Informatics. In 2006 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush. In addition to many other honours and degrees, Lederberg was a member of the US National Academy of Science and a Foreign Member of the Royal Society.

Ann Ganesan

Joshua Lederberg, molecular biologist: born Montclair, New Jersey 23 May 1925; Assistant Professor of Genetics, Wisconsin University 1947-50, Associate Professor 1950-54, Professor 1954-59; Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine (jointly) 1958; Professor and Executive Head, Department of Genetics, School of Medicine, Stanford University 1959-78; President, Rockefeller University 1978-90 (Emeritus), University Professor 1990-95 (Emeritus), Sackler Scholar 1995-2008; married 1947 Esther Zimmer (marriage dissolved 1966), 1968 Marguerite Kirsch (one daughter, one stepson); died New York 2 February 2008.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas