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Through These Halls: George Beadle

DNA is the building block for life and a Nebraskan discovered an important way those blocks work

Office of University Communications - Craig Chandler

Most of us are taught in high school biology that one gene provides the code for the production of one protein. The scientist who co-discovered that fact was a Nebraska native and was awarded the 1958 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

George Wells Beadle was born in 1903 in Wahoo, Nebraska. His parents were farmers, a profession he thought he would take up until a high school teacher convinced him to go to college (Source).

Beadle graduated in 1926 with a bachelor’s degree and in 1927 with his master’s degree. He then went on to Cornell for his Ph.D. Below are a couple of photos snipped from the 1926 Cornhusker yearbook.

Beadle was listed as Chancellor of Alpha Zeta in 1926 - a position I assume is analogous to president.

His career after obtaining his Ph.D. included stops in California, Massachusetts, Paris, and as president of the University of Chicago.

The work for which he was later awarded the Nobel Prize took place in the late 1930’s with his research partner Edward Tatum (Stanford University). The two scientists irradiated Neurospora (a fungus) to induce genetic mutation. They agreed before they started that they would only test 5,000 samples and would discontinue the work if nothing notable emerged. Fortunately, it only took 299 samples to find what they were looking for (Source).

Their work was published in 1941 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (You can read the original paper here if you so desire). The concluding statement was simple, elegant and fundamentally changed genetics research:

Inability to synthesize vitamin B6 is apparently differentiated by a single gene from the ability of the organism to elaborate this essential growth substance.

Beadle always extolled the virtues of education and the importance of teachers (Source). He died in 1989 and was survived by one son, David.

So, the next time your kids bring home their biology homework, you can let them know about the Nebraska connection in the genetics chapter. I’m sure they will thank you for it.