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Delbrück, Max

biology physics molecular viruses

[del brük ](1906–81) German–US biophysicist: pioneer of molecular biology.

Delbrück is unusual in 20th-c science for practising both physics and biology and for the fact that his place, although substantial as a discoverer, is largely that of an inspirer of others in the creation of molecular biology.

He began in physics, with a PhD from Göttingen in 1930, and spent 2 years on atomic physics with then 5 years as assistant to at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin; and from 1937 he was at the California Institute of Technology, where he moved into biology and the ‘Drosophila’ geneticists had gone to Pasadena from New York in 1928, taking with them the conviction that genetic problems should be solvable by chemistry and physics. Delbrück agreed, with the proviso that new concepts in these sciences would be needed, and his ideas were developed in the physicist influential book What is Life? in 1945. Delbrück decided to work on viruses as the simplest life form. He did much to create bacterial and bacteriophage genetics, and in 1946 he showed that viruses can exchange (recombine) genetic material, the first evidence of recombination in primitive organisms. His firm belief in an ‘informational basis’ in molecular biology bore fruit in other hands, but with much help from his forceful catalytic ideas. He shared a Nobel Prize in 1969, which led to another of his famous parties.

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