Seymour Benzer: History
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Subjects: Others
  • molecular biology
  • neuroscience
  • genetics

Basic Information

Seymour Benzer
Name: Seymour Benzer
(Oct 1921–Nov 2007)
Bensonhurst, Brooklyn New York City U.S.
Titles: Biologist Geneticist
Affiliations: Purdue University California Institute of Technology
Honors: Gairdner Foundation International Award (1964, 2004) Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize (1976) Harvey Prize (1977) Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal (1986) Wolf Prize in Medicine (1991) Crafoord Prize (1993) International Prize for Biology (2000) Fellow of the Royal Society

1. Introduction

Seymour Benzer (October 15, 1921 – November 30, 2007) was an United States physicist, molecular biologist and behavioral geneticist. His career began during the molecular biology revolution of the 1950s, and he eventually rose to prominence in the fields of molecular and behavioral genetics. He led a productive genetics research lab both at Purdue University and as the James G. Boswell Professor of Neuroscience, Emeritus, at the California Institute of Technology.[1][2][3]

2. Biography

2.1. Early Life and Education

Benzer was born in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, to Meyer B. and Eva Naidorf, both Jews from Poland.[4] He had two older sisters, and his parents favored him as the only boy.[5] One of Benzer's earliest scientific experiences was dissecting frogs he had caught as a boy. In an interview at Caltech, Benzer also remembered receiving a microscope for his 13th birthday, “and that opened up the whole world.”[6] The book "Arrowsmith" by Sinclair Lewis heavily influenced the young Benzer, and he even imitated the handwriting of Max Gottlieb, a scientist character in the novel. Benzer graduated from New Utrecht High School at 15 years old.[7]

In 1938 he enrolled at Brooklyn College where he majored in physics.[3] Benzer then moved on to Purdue University to earn his Ph.D. in solid state physics. While there he was recruited for a secret military project to develop improved radar. He performed research that led to the development of stable germanium rectifiers and discovered a germanium crystal able to be used at high voltages, among the scientific work that led to the first transistor.[2][3][8]

2.2. Personal Life

At Brooklyn College, as a sixteen-year-old freshman, Benzer met Dorothy Vlosky (nicknamed Dotty), a twenty-one-year-old nurse. He later married her in New York City in 1942.[7] They had two daughters, Barbie (Barbara) and Martha Jane.

Benzer died of a stroke at the Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, California.[8]

3. Scientific Career

3.1. Molecular Biology

Upon receiving his Ph.D. in 1947, he was immediately hired as an assistant professor in physics at Purdue. However, Benzer was inspired by Erwin Schrödinger's book What Is Life?, in which the physicist pondered the physical nature of the gene and a “code” of life. This catalyzed Benzer's shift in interest to biology, and he moved into the area of bacteriophage genetics.,[9] spending two years as a postdoctoral fellow in Max Delbrück's laboratory at California Institute of Technology, and then returning to Purdue. At Purdue University, Benzer developed the T4 rII system, a new genetic technique involving recombination in T4 bacteriophage rII mutants.[10] After observing that a particular rII mutant, a mutation that caused the bacteriophage to eliminate bacteria more rapidly than usual, was not exhibiting the expected phenotype, it occurred to Benzer that this strain might have come from a cross between two different rII mutants (each having part of the rII gene intact) wherein a recombination event resulted in a normal rII sequence. Benzer realized that by generating many r mutants and recording the recombination frequency between different r strains, one could create a detailed map of the gene, much as Alfred Sturtevant had done for chromosomes.[7] Taking advantage of the enormous number of recombinants that could be analyzed in the rII mutant system, Benzer was eventually able to map over 2400 rII mutations. The data he collected provided the first evidence that the gene is not an indivisible entity, as previously believed, and that genes were linear.[10][11] Benzer also 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. Based on his rII data, Benzer also proposed distinct classes of mutations including deletions, point mutations, missense mutations, and nonsense mutations.[12]

Benzer's work influenced many other scientists of his time (see Phage group). 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 Sidney Brenner to establish the triplet code of DNA. In addition, Benzer's mapping technique was taken up by Richard Feynman.[7]

In 1967, Benzer left the field of phage genetics and returned to the California Institute of Technology to work in behavioral genetics.

3.2. Behavioral Genetics

Benzer vs. Hirsch

Benzer was one of the first scientists to rise to prominence in the field of behavioral genetics. As the field began to emerge in the 1960s and 70s, Benzer found himself in scientific opposition to another of the field's leading researchers, Jerry Hirsch. While Hirsch believed that behaviors were complex phenomena irreducible to the level of single genes, Benzer advocated that animal behaviors were not too complex to be directed by a single gene. This translated to methodological differences in the two researchers' experiments with Drosophila that profoundly influenced the field of behavioral genetics. Hirsch artificially selected for behaviors of interest over many generations, while Benzer primarily used forward genetic mutagenesis screens to isolate mutants for a particular behavior.[13] Benzer and Hirsch's competing philosophies served to provide necessary scientific tension in order to accelerate and enhance developments in behavioral genetics, helping it gain traction as a legitimate area of study in the scientific community.

Research accomplishments

Benzer used forward genetics to investigate the genetic basis of various behaviors such as phototaxis, circadian rhythms, and learning by inducing mutations in a Drosophila population and then screening individuals for altered phenotypes of interest.[9] To better identify mutants, Benzer developed novel apparatuses such as the countercurrent device, which was designed to separate flies according to the magnitude and direction of their phototactic response.[14] Benzer identified mutants for a wide variety of characteristics: vision (nonphototactic, negative phototactic, and eyes absent[15]), locomotion (sluggish, uncoordinated), stress sensitivity (freaked-out), sexual function (savoir-faire, fruitless), nerve and muscle function (photoreceptor degeneration, drop-dead), and learning and memory (rutabaga, dunce[16]).[17]

Benzer and student Ron Konopka discovered the first circadian rhythm mutants. Three distinct mutant types—arrhythmic, shortened period, and lengthened period—were identified. These mutations all involved the same functional gene on the X chromosome and influenced the eclosion rhythm of the population as well as rhythms in individual flies' locomotor activity.[18] To monitor Drosophila locomotor activity, Benzer and postdoctoral researcher, Yoshiki Hotta, designed a system using infrared light and solar cells.[18] All three mutations were mapped to the X chromosome, zero centimorgans away from each other, indicating that the mutant phenotypes corresponded to alleles of the same gene, which Konopka named period.[18] 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 growing field of molecular biology of behavior. In 1992 Benzer, working with Michael Rosbash, furthered this work by showing that the PER protein, which period codes for, is predominantly located in the nucleus. In 1998, Benzer and his colleagues Yi-Jyun Lin and Laurent Seroude published findings of a long-life mutant in Drosophila, then named Methuselah. The mutant gene coded for a previously unknown member of the GPCR family. By testing against temperature stress, it is thought that these mutants have an increased ability to respond to stress and thus to live longer.[19] One of Benzer’s final research projects was on dietary restriction and longevity research. A paper was published, in Cell, on the longevity effect of 4E-BP, a translational repressor, following dietary restriction. Although the research was done before his death, the paper was published afterwards and dedicated to his memory.[20]

3.3. Cancer Research

In 1978, Dotty was in the hospital with breast cancer, and Seymour's friend, colleague, and mentor Max Delbrück was diagnosed with cancer. Consequently, Seymour Benzer took interest in cancer biology and attended several conferences on breast cancer.[7] Benzer later remarried with Carol Miller, a neuropathologist. Together, in the early 1980s, they used antibody staining techniques to find nearly identical genes between flies and humans.[7]

4. Honors and Awards

  • Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1959)[21]
  • Gairdner Foundation International Award (1964)
  • Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research (1971)
  • Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University (1976),[22]
  • Harvey Prize (1977)
  • Dickson Prize in Science (1978)
  • National Medal of Science (1982)
  • Rosenstiel Award (1985)
  • Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal (1986)
  • Wolf Prize in Medicine (1991)
  • Crafoord Prize (1993)
  • Feltrinelli Prize (1994)
  • International Prize for Biology (2000)
  • NAS Award in the Neurosciences from the National Academy of Sciences (2001)[23]
  • March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology (2002)
  • Gairdner Foundation International Award (2004) (second award)
  • Bower Award and Prize for Achievement in Science (2004)
  • Albany Medical Center Prize (2006)

He was a member of the French Academy of Sciences, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and the Royal Society.

5. Books

Benzer is the subject of the 1999 book Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior by Pulitzer laureate Jonathan Weiner,[7] and Reconceiving the Gene: Seymour Benzer's Adventures in Phage Genetics by Lawrence Holmes.[5]

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Further Reading
In this part, we encourage you to list the link of papers wrote by the character, or published reviews/articles about his/her academic contributions.


  1. Greenspan, R. J. (2012). "Seymour Benzer. 15 October 1921 -- 30 November 2007". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 58: 23–32. doi:10.1098/rsbm.2012.0031.
  2. Greenspan, R. J. (2008). "Seymour Benzer (1921–2007)". Current Biology 18 (3): R106–R110. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2007.12.039. PMID 18345547.
  3. Carl Zimmer (8 December 2007). "Seymour Benzer, geneticist, is dead at 86". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-02-18. 
  5. Holmes, Frederic Lawrence; Summers, William C. (2006). Reconceiving the Gene: Seymour Benzer's Adventures in Phage Genetics. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-11078-4. 
  6. Benzer, Seymour (1991). "Seymour Benzer (1921-2007) Interviewed by Heidi Asputrian". Oral History Project. California Institute of Technology Archives. Retrieved 19 April 2011. 
  7. Weiner, Jonathan (1999). Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior. New York: Knopf. ISBN 978-0-679-44435-0. 
  8. "Neurogenetics Pioneer Seymour Benzer Dies" (Press release). California Institute of Technology. 30 November 2007. Archived from the original on 8 February 2008. Retrieved 2008-02-18. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (|url-status= suggested) (help)
  9. Jan, Y. -N.; Jan, L. (2008). "Retrospective: Seymour Benzer (1921-2007)". Science 319 (5859): 45. doi:10.1126/science.1154050. PMID 18174427.
  10. Benzer, S. (1961). "On the Topography of the Genetic Fine Structure". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 47 (3): 403–415. doi:10.1073/pnas.47.3.403. PMID 16590840. Bibcode: 1961PNAS...47..403B.
  11. Benzer, S. (1959). "On the Topology of the Genetic Fine Structure". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 45 (11): 1607–20. doi:10.1073/pnas.45.11.1607. PMID 16590553. Bibcode: 1959PNAS...45.1607B.
  12. Jayaraman, R. Reson (2008). "Seymour Benzer and T4 rII: Running the Map into the Ground". Resonance 13 (10): 898–908. doi:10.1007/s12045-008-0098-6. 
  13. Tully, T. (1996). "Discovery of genes involved with learning and memory: An experimental synthesis of Hirschian and Benzerian perspectives". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 93 (24): 13460–13467. doi:10.1073/pnas.93.24.13460. PMID 8942957. Bibcode: 1996PNAS...9313460T.
  14. Bonini, N. M. (2008). "A Tribute to Seymour Benzer, 1921-2007". Genetics 180 (3): 1265–1273. doi:10.1534/genetics.104.97782. PMID 19001297.
  15. Bonini, N. M.; Leiserson, W. M.; Benzer, S. (1993). "The eyes absent gene: Genetic control of cell survival and differentiation in the developing Drosophila eye". Cell 72 (3): 379–395. doi:10.1016/0092-8674(93)90115-7. PMID 8431945.
  16. Dudai, Y.; Jan, Y. N.; Byers, D.; Quinn, W. G.; Benzer, S. (1976). "Dunce, a Mutant of Drosophila Deficient in Learning". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 73 (5): 1684–1688. doi:10.1073/pnas.73.5.1684. Bibcode: 1976PNAS...73.1684D.
  17. Benzer, S. (1971). "From the Gene to Behavior". JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 218 (7): 1015–1022. doi:10.1001/jama.1971.03190200047010.
  18. Konopka, R. J.; Benzer, S. (1971). "Clock Mutants of Drosophila melanogaster". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 68 (9): 2112–2116. doi:10.1073/pnas.68.9.2112. PMID 5002428. Bibcode: 1971PNAS...68.2112K.
  19. Lin, Y.; Seroude, L.; Benzer, S. (1998). "Extended Life-Span and Stress Resistance in the Drosophila Mutant methuselah". Science 282 (5390): 943–946. doi:10.1126/science.282.5390.943. PMID 9794765. Bibcode: 1998Sci...282..943L.
  20. Zid, B. M.; Rogers, A. N.; Katewa, S. D.; Vargas, M. A.; Kolipinski, M. C.; Lu, T. A.; Benzer, S.; Kapahi, P. (2009). "4E-BP Extends Lifespan upon Dietary Restriction by Enhancing Mitochondrial Activity in Drosophila". Cell 139 (1): 149–160. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2009.07.034. PMID 19804760.
  21. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved June 15, 2011. 
  22. The Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize Committee (2007). "The Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize for Biology Or Biochemistry". Columbia University Medical Center. Retrieved 2008-02-18. 
  23. "Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 16 February 2011. 
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