Famous Scientists in Genetics - Charlotte Auerbach, A Pioneer in the Study of Mutagenesis and Mutations

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Personal Life and Education

The German geneticist Charlotte Auerbach is credited as the founder of the science of chemical mutagenics. She was born in Krefeld in Germany on 14 May 1899 to Friedrich and Selma Auerbach. Like many researchers of note, Auerbach had an early interest in science that was fostered by a highly cultured, intellectual family background. Her father was a chemist and her grandfather, Leopold Auerbach, the discoverer of Auerbach’s Plexus in the human intestine.

She studied biology, chemistry, physics and philosophy at the universities in Wurzburg, Freiburg and Berlin, receiving her Staatsexamen in 1924. For a period, unsure of her ability to work as a scientist and being fond of children, she worked as a secondary school science teacher in Heidelberg and Frankfurt. The experience was not particularly promising, given her inability to maintain class discipline and the anti-semitism that was already brewing in Germany.

In 1925 she joined the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biology in Berlin-Dahlem to work on her Ph.D. Working under Otto Mangold, she found him too dictatorial for her liking and furthermore saw little opportunity for having a successful university career. So, once more, she retreated to teaching secondary school, this time in Berlin. It was as dismal an experience as her previous teaching stint and then, on 1 April 1933, the newly-formed Nazi government relieved her and other Jewish teachers of their posts.

Auerbach, on her mother’s advice, moved base to Edinburgh and resumed her Ph.D. studies at the Institute of Animal Genetics at Edinburgh University. Completing a thesis on Drosophila leg development, she received her Ph.D. degree in 1933 and then began working as a research assistant to Professor Crew in his work on mouse mutagenesis. In this capacity, she met or attended the lectures of many distinguished scientists of the period. The one that most influenced her was Herman Joseph Mueller, who came to Edinburgh University in 1938. At this point, he had already demonstrated that X-rays caused mutations in Drosophila and he encouraged Auerbach to study chemically-induced mutations.

Research and Genetic Mutations

Working with J. M. Robson and taking forward the genetic tests developed by Mueller, Auerbach showed that mustard gas had mutagenic properties and caused mutations in Drosophila. Her experiment results were suppressed by the Ministry of Labor during the Second World War period - mustard gas being a highly toxic chemical that has been used in warfare during the First World War - and were published in 1949. During the war, as she had taken British citizenship in 1939, Auerbach wasn’t interned as many European researchers were, and was able to continue with her work; her mother had joined her before the war broke out; her father had died in 1925.

She experimented with other chemical agents on Drosophila, Neurospora and yeasts. Her experiments led her to observe the following distinct differences between X-ray-induced mutations and chemically-induced mutations -

  • X-rays caused whole-body mutations, while chemicals caused mutations in only some parts of the body.
  • X-rays produced more chromosomal to gene mutations that did the chemical mutagens.

The explanation for this, according to Auerbach, was that -

  • X-rays produced immediate mutations - genetic changes took place at once.
  • Chemicals produced delayed mutations - only a few genes were affected after several cell divisions.

This theory was later tested and found correct by the Polish genetics researcher Helena Slyzinska.

Auerbach became well-known after her mutagenics research results were published and she was honored with Fellowships from the Royal Societies of Edinburgh (1949) and London (1957) and the Darwin Medal (1977). She became a popular lecturer at Edinburgh University, was the Honorary Director of Unit of Mutagenesis Research (1959-1969), received a Personal Chair (1967), and was made Professor Emeritus (1969). She travelled extensively, published 91 scientific works and a children’s book, and spoke out against Apartheid and Nuclear Testing. At the age of 84, she received an MRC project grant; failing eyesight made her relinquish that, however. She died on 17 March 1994.