A 1958 Nobel Prize laureate for Physiology or Medicine, George Beadle along with fellow scientist Edward Lawrie Tatum discovered how genes played a part in the regulation of biochemical events occurring inside cells. The American geneticist devised successful experiments, subjecting the fungus Neurospora crassa, to x-rays and determining that this caused mutations, thus helping establish biochemical genetics.
Early Life and Educational Background
Born on October 22, 1903, George Beadle was known to his friends as “Beets.” He was raised in a farm in his hometown in Wahoo, Nebraska. His mother, Hattie Albro died when he was only four and his older brother died in 1913. George and his younger sister were raised by his father, Chauncey Elmer Beadle and their housekeepers. His father owned a forty acre farm and he naturally expected George to follow in his footsteps and become a farmer.
However, one of George Beadle’s high school science teachers, Bess MacDonald, from Wahoo High School encouraged him to attend college and so George enrolled at the College of Agriculture in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1922. In 1926, he was awarded his Bachelor of Science Degree at the University of Nebraska.
Continuing at the university with his studies, Beadle worked with agronomy professor Franklin Keim for a year studying hybrid wheat. This research probably stimulated his interest in genetics, and having experience on a 40-acre farm back home, he had a good background in his subject. Beadle obtained his Master of Science degree in 1927 and accepted a position as teaching assistant at Cornell University.
Beadle remained at Cornell University until 1931, obtaining his doctorate the same year. His thesis was entitled ‘Genetical and Cytological Studies of Mendelian Asynapsis in Zea mays.’ He worked with professors Lester Sharp and Rollins Emerson researching several sterile mutants of maize and establishing that mutations can affect chromosome behavior at different stages during meiosis.
In 1931 Beadle was awarded a Fellowship at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) at Pasadena and he worked there until 1936 initially continuing to study maize cytogenetics.
He took a six month visit to Paris in 1935 to study the development of eye pigment in the fruit fly.
A brief spell as assistant professor of genetics at Harvard University in 1936 was followed by a nine year appointment as professor of biology (genetics) at Stanford University. His Nobel Prize winning research was conducted there.
In 1946 Beadle became professor of biology and chairman of the Division of Biology at Caltech where he remained until 1961 when he was elected chancellor and president of the University of Chicago.
He retired from the university in 1968.
After retiring he became the Director of the American Medical Association’s Institute for Biomedical Research, serving until 1970.
Research and Scientific Endeavors
Beadle’s interest switched away from maize at Caltech and he began to work under Thomas Hunt Morgan who was involved in gene research on the Drosophila fruit fly, specifically the crossing-over in meiosis.
He became interested in how genes determine the processes of embryonic development. Beadle decided to the study the development of eye pigment in the fruit fly, collaborating research with embryologist Boris Ephrussio.
In 1935, Beadle traveled to Paris and remained there for a period of 6 months. During his stay in Paris, he conducted studies and researched with Professor Boris Ephrussi. They conducted their scientific research at the Institut de Biologie physico-chimique, and together they studied the development of the fruit fly Drosophila’s eye pigment or their so called eye color “substances.”
By 1937 Beadle, had concluded that Drosophila was not the ideal subject for his studies and he looked for another simpler organism to study.
At Stanford University, Beadle joined forces with biochemist Edward Lawrie Tatum, choosing the red fungus Neurospora crassa that covers rotting vegetation for their genetic research. They exposed the fungus mold to x-rays and studied the mutants that were produced, investigating the different nutritional requirements of these mutants.
Initially they were unsure if they would have any success. At that time, both geneticists agreed to test 5,000 cultures before deciding to abandon the project. They first collected 1,000 cultures before proceeding to test any of them. Their first success came with the 299th culture, and they published the results of their studies in 1941.
From the experiments they deduced that each gene determined the structure of a specific enzyme and that each enzyme allowed a single chemical reaction to proceed. This concept is known as the “one gene-one enzyme hypothesis” of gene action.
They were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1958, also sharing this with geneticist Joshua Lederberg. Lederberg established how certain viruses can carry a bacterial gene from one bacterium to another.
In addition to his research Beadle wrote a prize-winning book for young people, “The Language of Life: An Introduction to the Science of Genetics” which was published in 1966.
In the latter part of his career Beadle focused on academic administration rather than research.
Other Awards and Recognitions
In 1946, he was elected as a Fellow of American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
His awards received included
- The Albert Lasker Award of the American Public Health Association in 1950
- The Dyer Award in 1951
- The Emil Christian Hansen Prize of Denmark in 1953
- The Albert Einstein Commemorative Award in Science in 1958
- The Kimber Genetics Award in 1960
He was also been a member of learned societies such as the National Academy of Sciences, the Genetics Society of America of which he was the president in 1946, the American Cancer Society, the Royal Society of London and the American Association for the Advancement of Science where he was also the president in 1955.
Personal Life and Latter Years
George Beadle was twice married. He married in 1928 and had a son David with his first wife Marion Hill who was a botanist. They divorced in 1953. His second wife was Muriel McClure, a writer.
When he had retired in 1968, he continued to be active, researching the origins of maize.
The geneticist developed Alzheimer’s disease in 1981, and eight years later, he died on June 09 1989, aged 85.