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Müller, Hermann Joseph

genetics rays mutation mutations

[mü ler] (1890–1967) US geneticist: discoverer of use of X-rays to induce genetic mutation.

Müller became an enthusiast for genetics at 16; he had already founded the first science club at his Harlem school, and won a scholarship to Columbia University. By 1915 he began his experiments on spontaneous gene mutation, a key effect in the study of genetics, under the guidance of , the leading American geneticist. Müller already saw natural mutations as not only rare but usually both detrimental (often lethal) and recessive; and he saw the gene itself as the true basis of both evolution and of life itself, as its ability to reproduce itself was the central property of living matter. In 1926 he achieved the abundant and easy production of mutations by use of X-rays, which hugely increased the scope of genetic studies. He concluded, correctly, that mutation is in essence no more than a chemical reaction. He used the fruit fly Drosophila for much of his work, but the method can be applied to reproductive cells of any kind. Since then, chemicals (such as colchicine, and mustard gas) have been used in place of X-rays or other high-energy radiation to induce mutations.

Müller moved to Germany in 1932 but in 1934 he moved on to the USSR, only to find its political climate even more unhappy for him; Edinburgh was his home from 1937–40 and thereafter the USA. His influence in genetics was very great and his X-ray work won him the Nobel Prize in 1946. He was much concerned both that environmental radiation from many sources can injure human genes and that modern medicine tends to preserve mutants in the population, and he advocated sperm banks to maintain and improve the human gene pool.

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