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McClintock, Barbara

genes experiments mcclintock’s maize

(1902–92) US plant geneticist and discoverer of ‘jumping genes’.

Barbara McClintock’s early success in science at school disappointed her mother, who thought that her daughter was not developing ‘appropriate feminine behaviour’. She graduated from Cornell and had early success in her postgraduate work; she found she could identify individual maize chromosomes under the microscope, which led to the integration of plant-breeding experiments with chromosomal analysis. She gained her PhD in 1927 and soon became recognized as a leading scientist in her field. Failing to get professional advancement, she left Cornell and went to the University of Missouri in 1936. Promotion still eluded her and in 1941 she went to work at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where she discovered and studied a class of mutant genes in maize. Her experiments in maize genetics led her to the very novel idea that the function of some genes is to control other genes; and that some are able to move on the chromosome and control a number of other genes. This concept of ‘jumping genes’ is now familiar and accepted, even though it is far from fully understood; as she demonstrated, it must involve physical movement of DNA from site to site. When she presented the work at a symposium in 1951 the significance and implications were not understood, and her discoveries were neglected by most geneticists for many years. Disappointed, she stopped publishing the results of her continuing experiments. One aspect of McClintock’s work, on promotor and suppressor genes, was to be much extended in the 1960s.

In the 1970s a series of experiments by molecular biologists proved that pieces of bacterial DNA do indeed ‘jump’ on the chromosomes, and McClintock’s work was finally recognized. She was awarded the first unshared Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine to be given to a woman, in 1983. Described her as one of the three most important figures in the history of genetics. Asked if she was bitter about the lack of recognition of her work, McClintock answered ‘If you know you’re right you don’t care. You know that sooner or later it will come out in the wash.’

McClintock, Jessica [next] [back] McClellan, George Marion(1860–1934) - Writer, poet, minister, Writing Career, Chronology

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