Fused with the Ideas and Results of Others
NSF's support of genetics dates back to the earliest days of the agency. One of NSF's first five grants in the field of genetic biology, as it was originally called, was made in 1952 to Max Delbrück, who came to the United States from Germany in 1937. Trained as a quantum physicist, he gravitated to biology. While working at the California Institutie of Technology at Vanderbilt University, Delbrück organized and inspired a distinguished group of biologists. One member of the group was James Watson, who, along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, received the Nobel Prize in 1962 for discovering the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA.
Delbrück's contributions to the history of genetics were numerous and evolved from his early interest in bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria. A phage can attach itself to a bacterial cell, shuck off its own protein coat, and infiltrate the host cell the way the contents of a syringe enter a vein. One the phage is inside a cell, its genetic material combines with that of the bacteria, and the phage reproduces itself exactly. These characteristics make phages ideal for the study of biological self-replication and the transfer of bacterial genes between host organisms. Through experiments with phages, Delbrück and a collaborator demonstrated, for the first time, that bacteria undergo mutation. Their work validated the revolutionary idea that genetic principles apply to microorganisms. It also opened the door to genetic analysis of recombination within bacteria.
Delbrück won the Nobel Prize in 1969, as "the man who transformed bacteriophage research from vague empiricism to an exact science." In his acceptance speech, Delbrück remarked upon the ways in which one scientific discovery leads to another, and he contrasted progress in art with progress in science.
"The books of the great scientists are gathering dust on the shelves of learned libraries. And rightly so. The scientist addresses an infinitesimal audience of fellow composers. His message is not devoid of universality but its universality is disembodied and anonymous. While the artist's communication is linked forever with its original form, that the of the scientist is modified, amplified, fused with the ideas and results of others, and melts into the stream of knoweldge and ideas which forms our culture."