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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most