Pioneers of Genetics: A Guide to Some of the Biggest Names in Genetics

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Pioneers of Genetics is a handy guide to some of the biggest and most important names in the history of genetics. Their imaginations, perseverance, creativity and insights forever changed our views of ourselves and the natural world, and have given us the potential to rid the planet of some pretty nasty diseases.

So strap yourself in to read about some the key players and their discoveries.

Frederick Miescher, the Man who Discovered DNA

More than 80 years before Crick and Watson unravelled the structure of DNA, a Swiss chemist discovered the genetic material whilst studying white blood cells in pus-ridden bandages.

The Importance of Mendel and His Peas

Austrian monk sows the seeds of modern genetics by demonstrating that the inheritance of particular pea plant traits follows set patterns. His genius was to recognise that there are dominant and recessive ‘particles of inheritance’ in the plants, which we now refer to as dominant and recessive genes.

The Discovery of the DNA Double Helix

This is the big one. The breakthrough discovery of Crick, Watson and others that turbo charged the modern field of genetics.

An Introduction to Francis Crick

One of the most famous and recognisable names in genetics research, but working out the structure of DNA wasn’t his only major contribution to science.

An Introduction to James Watson

Best known as the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA Watson has enjoyed a long and distinguished career that also saw him head up the Human Genome Project for a while.

Maurice Wilkins and the Double Helix

Wilkins was the ’third man of the double helix’ who made important contributions to one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of the twentieth century.

The Dark Lady of DNA

The three scientists most commonly associated with elucidating the structure of DNA are Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins. But there was one other - Rosalind Franklin. Her research data played an important part in allowing Crick and Watson to complete their findings.

Linus Pauling and the Discovery of DNA

A number of scientists tried and failed to work out the structure of DNA. Linus Pauling was one of them, a fact that surprises many who study his career. He went looking in the wrong place, but this brilliant chemist did elucidate the structure of proteins.

The Groundbreaking Research of Frederick Sanger

Outstanding chemist who has won two Nobel Prizes in Chemistry. He worked out the complete amino acid sequence of insulin and devised techniques to sequence DNA, believing that sequencing is a key to understanding living matter.

Marshall Warren Nirenberg and Cracking the Genetic Code

Meet the biological code breaker who studied the relationship between DNA, RNA and proteins to discover how proteins are made.

Paul Berg and Gene Splicing

Gene splicing is the process where pieces of DNA are cut up and then spliced together to form recombinant DNA. Berg first used the technique in 1972 to create the first recombinant DNA molecules which paved the way for the development of genetic engineering.

Meet the Man who Discovered Ribosomes

Until George Palade came along the subcellular organelles were known as microsomes, but he made a number of key discoveries about them that led to their renaming, and his Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

Oswald Avery and a Big Moment in the History of Genetics

One of the acknowledged giants of genetics who is best known for his discovery that DNA is the hereditary material.

The Scientific Experiments of Hans Spemann

A German embryologist who discovered how groups of embryonic cells are able to develop into specific tissues and organs. He also carried the first somatic nuclear transfer, the technique used to clone animals.

A Quick Profile of Craig Venter

To some he is the Devil incarnate who wants to own all our biological material. To others he is a gifted scientist whose work is accelerating research into tackling diseases and may even reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. So just who is Craig Venter?

Boyer, Cohen and the World’s First Genetically Modified Organism

Herb Boyer and Stanley Cohen kickstarted the field of genetic engineering with the creation of the first ever genetically engineered organism.

Who Invented DNA Fingerprinting?

Within thirty minutes of his ’eureka moment’ Sir Alec Jeffreys realised the full potential of a technology that is now used all over the world in forensic science, and to resolve paternity and immigration disputes.

An Introduction to Nobel Prize Winner Barbara McClintock

A brilliant and distinguished Nobel Prize-winning scientist who discovered transposition, the process by which DNA sequences can move to different positions on chromosomes.

The Top Ten Moments in Genetics History

Perhaps not as sexy as the Billboard Hot 100 but this is a chart rundown of some the highlights of genetics history and the scientific big players who made some of them possible.

Genetic Engineering Timeline

From the world’s first recombinant DNA organism to the first genetically engineered drug, get up to speed on some of the major landmarks in the history of genetic engineering.

Frederick Griffiths and Gene Transfer

A meticulous researcher whose probings of and experiments with bacterial cells revealed that gene transfer takes place between different bacterial strains.

Phoebus Levine and Nucleic Acids

His name may not be one that you immediately think of when asked to recall the giants of genetics, but the Russian-American biochemist made major contributions to the field including the discovery that the cell nucleus contains both DNA and RNA.

Erwin Chargaff: Laying the Foundations for Crick and Watson

A pivotal figure who made several major contributions to the field including his observation of complementary base pairing.


  • This article was based on an extensive collection of Bright Hub genetics articles.