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Seymour Benzer

Seymour Benzer (October 15, 1921 – November 30, 2007) was an accomplished American physicist, molecular biologist and behavioral geneticist. With a career that started with the molecular biology revolution of the 1950s, Seymour Benzer was to the end very active as a researcher, where he led a productive lab as the James G. Boswell Professor of Neuroscience, Emeritus, at the California Institute of Technology.[1]

Benzer was born in New York City to parents from Poland. As a boy, he had his first experiences in studying biology, catching frogs and dissecting them. For his 13th birthday he received a microscope, “and that opened up the whole world,” Benzer recalled in a 1990 interview for an oral history project at Caltech. In 1938 he enrolled at Brooklyn College where he majored in physics.[2]



Molecular biology

Seymour Benzer started his scientific career as a solid state physicist at Purdue University. After completing his Ph.D, he decided to start research in biophysics and moved into the area of bacteriophage genetics. After a short stay at Caltech, Benzer returned to Purdue where he developed a new genetic technique involving recombination in mutant bacteriophage[3] (the rII system). Taking advantage of the enormous number of recombinants that could be analyzed in the rII mutant system, Benzer provided the first evidence that the gene is not an indivisible entity, as previously believed. Benzer proved that mutations were distributed in many different parts of a single gene, and the resolving power of his system allowed him to discern mutants that differ at the level of a single nucleotide. Benzer's experiments with the rII system are widely considered among the most elegant experiments in modern genetics, and many[4] believe that Benzer should have been awarded the Nobel Prize for it.

In his molecular biology period, Benzer dissected the fine structure of a single gene, laying down the ground work for decades of mutation analysis and genetic engineering, and setting up a paradigm (using the rII phage) that would later be used by Francis Crick and Sydney Brenner to establish the triplet code of DNA.

Behavioral genetics

After his work in phage genetics, Benzer turned to the fruit fly Drosophila to study the genetic basis of animal behavior. He then pioneered the field of neurogenetics working with mutants of Drosophila melanogaster. Benzer, with student Ron Konopka, discovered the first circadian rhythm mutants in a gene they called "period". This was the first of several seminal studies of single genes affecting behavior, studies that have been replicated in other animal models and are now the basis for the booming field of molecular biology of behavior. In particular, the study of circadian rhythms has now become ubiquitous, and homologs of the original gene have been identified in many organisms.

Benzer was at the forefront of the study of neurodegeneration in fruit flies, modeling human diseases and attempting to suppress them. He also contributed to the field of aging biology, looking for mutants with altered longevity and trying to dissect the mechanisms by which an organism can escape the inevitable functional downfall and its associated diseases[5].


He is a recipient of the Gairdner Foundation International Award (1964), the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research (1971),the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University in 1976, the National Medal of Science (1982), the Wolf Prize in Medicine (1991), the Crafoord Prize (1993), a second Gairdner award for his contributions to the field of neurogenetics (2004) and the Albany Medical Center Prize (2006).

Benzer is one of only a handful of two-time winners of the Gairdner Award, widely recognized as one the top prizes in the biological sciences, and often a Nobel Prize predictor. The Albany Medical Center Prize has been called the "American Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine".

Seymour Benzer was a member of the French Academy of Sciences, the US National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Royal Society.


Seymour Benzer died of a stroke at the Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, California, according to the California Institute of Technology[1].


Benzer is the subject of the 1999 book Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jonathan Weiner and of the 2006 book Reconceiving the Gene: Seymour Benzer's Adventures in Phage Genetics by Lawrence Holmes.


  1. ^ Carl Zimmer. "Seymour Benzer, geneticist, is dead at 86", New York Times, 8 December 2007. 
  2. ^ Carl Zimmer. "Seymour Benzer, geneticist, is dead at 86", New York Times, 8 December 2007. 
  3. ^ Seymour Benzer, On the topography of the genetic fine structure, PNAS, Vol. 17, p. 403-415, 1961.
  4. ^,1,7065606.story?coll=la-headlines-pe-california
  5. ^ Would that he were Methuselah (2007-12-03). Retrieved on 2007-12-07.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Seymour_Benzer". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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