Professor Noreen Murray: Scientist whose work paved the way for genetic engineering
Noreen Murray was recognised internationally as being one of Britain's most distinguished and highly respected molecular geneticists.
In the early 1970s, together with her husband Ken and colleague Bill Brammar, she led the development of recombinant DNA technology, or genetic engineering, as it is commonly called. This was a seismic event ultimately affecting all areas of biology and making possible much of modern biotechnology. Their pioneering work put the UK at the head of this revolution in research, and the technology and tools that they developed have had lasting impact.
Noreen was born Noreen Elizabeth Parker in Read, near Burnley, in 1935. She grew up in Bolton-le-Sands, on the edge of Morecombe Bay, where her father, John Parker, was headmaster of the local school. She attended Lancaster Girls' Grammar School and in 1953 won London Intercollegiate and State Scholarships to enter King's College, London, to study botany. She developed an interest in microbial genetics and after graduation moved to the University of Birmingham to work for a PhD under the supervision of David Catcheside, Head of the new Department of Microbiology.
Catcheside used the bread mould Neurospora crassa as an experimental organism and Noreen decided to investigate the chromosomal distribution of genes needed for synthesis of the amino acid methionine. This required isolation and genetic mapping of mutants that could not grow without methionine, leading to an interest in the mechanism of recombination, the process that ensures that new combinations of genetic variants are transmitted from one generation to the next. Noreen discovered that recombination does not occur uniformly along chromosomes but occurs more frequently at hotspots from which it proceeds preferentially in one direction.
Recombination in Neurospora was not the only interest that Noreen found in Birmingham. She and a fellow PhD student, Ken Murray, discovered that they had interests in common, particularly walking and climbing. They were married in 1958. After completing their PhDs Noreen and Ken took up postdoctoral positions at Stanford University. Noreen joined David Perkins' laboratory, where she had five happy years immersed in a stimulating environment and meeting many leading microbial geneticists. They returned to Britain in 1964, Noreen to the Botany Department of the University of Cambridge with Harold Whitehouse, another fungal geneticist interested in the mechanism of recombination, and Ken to the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology.
Their next move, in 1968, was to the newly formed Department of Molecular Biology in the University of Edinburgh, Noreen as part of Bill Hayes' MRC Molecular Genetics Unit and Ken as a Senior Lecturer. Noreen had continued her studies with Neurospora in Cambridge but decided that she should switch to a less complicated system, the bacteriophage (bacterial virus) lambda and its host Escherichia coli, as this might allow recombination to be studied biochemically.
They had become interested in restriction enzymes, proteins that cut DNA only if it has a particular short nucleotide sequence known as a restriction site; different restriction enzymes recognise different sequences. A subset of these enzymes cut DNA at their recognition site, opening up the possibility of breaking DNA molecules at defined sites and joining together fragments of different molecules that had been cut in this way. Noreen used her skills as a geneticist to select variants of lambda that only had restriction sites in a region that was not essential for its growth. These lambda vectors could be cut at the remaining sites and foreign DNA inserted, producing recombinant molecules that could be amplified in E. coli.
Noreen realised that introducing foreign genes into E. coli might provide a relatively simple way of obtaining large amounts of the corresponding proteins for experimental and therapeutic purposes. Over the next 10 years she developed a series of increasingly sophisticated lambda vectors, in Edinburgh and at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, where she and Ken worked from 1980-1982. These were rapidly adopted by researchers throughout the world and are still widely used today.
Noreen's contributions to molecular genetics were recognised with many honours, including election to the Royal Societies of Edinburgh and London, and the European Molecular Biology Organisation, honorary degrees from the Universities of Birmingham, Umist, Warwick, Lancaster, Sheffield and Edinburgh, the Royal Medal of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, as well as a CBE for services to science. She was generous with her time both to her colleagues and to the scientific community as whole, serving as Vice-President of the Royal Society of London, President of the Genetical Society of Great Britain, a member of the Council of BBSRC, and a Trustee of the Darwin Trust of Edinburgh that she and Ken established to support research in the natural sciences.
Noreen loved research, continuing to work at the bench long after her formal retirement in 2001. She was an exceptional mentor to those who worked with or around her, whether an undergraduate, postgraduate student, technician, postdoctoral research assistant, sabbatical visitor or academic colleague. She was inspirational both by example and through her lectures, which were delivered with clarity and confidence despite her finding public speaking stressful. Her achievements came at a time when it was not always easy for women to make a career in science, and it is a measure of her ability and determination that she reached the top of her profession despite occasionally contending with the unconscious prejudice of the scientific establishment. Perhaps because of this Noreen was particularly attentive to the careers of her female colleagues and delighted in their success.
Noreen took pleasure in gardening, fine art and the company of others. She and Ken were exceptionally hospitable to friends and colleagues, entertaining them at home, where Noreen was an excellent cook, or at the Edinburgh New Club. An invitation to dine was a real treat.
In 2010 Noreen was diagnosed with a form of motor neurone disease, She confronted this affliction with courage and dignity, more concerned for the welfare of those around her than for herself. By the beginning of 2011 she could no longer speak but she continued to come into her office to deal with correspondence and to converse with colleagues via notes. At the beginning of May she entered the Marie Curie hospice in Edinburgh, where she died with Ken at her side.
As rector of the University of Edinburgh from 2003 until 2006, I am in a position to know of the huge generosity which Noreen and her husband Ken bestowed on the University, by no means solely related to their ownscientific disciplines, writes TamDalyell. Never can the proceeds of patents have been put to less unselfish and more worthwhile ends. And, after her day in the lab was completed, many of us will remember the warmth of her hospitality, and being conducted by her, in a long summer evening, round the garden she had so imaginatively created at her south Edinburgh home.
Noreen Elizabeth Parker (Lady Murray), molecular geneticist: born Read, Lancashire 26 February 1935; Professor of Molecular Genetics, Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology, University of Edinburgh 1988–2001, then Emeritus; CBE 2002; married 1958 Sir Kenneth Murray; died Edinburgh 12 May 2011.
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