Esther Lederberg:
_Techniques and Tools Spanning Generations

Beyond Marie Curie

Marie Curie. Maybe Rosalind Franklin. These are two of the main names that come to mind when one thinks “women in science.” The reasons more female contributors to science aren’t a larger part of our collective consciousness are many and unjust and unfounded. Better coverage of these issues abound, and the tides are very slowly turning, but many major scientific advances, often by women, are still not well-known.

That’s why I wanted to give Dr. Esther Lederberg a mention. She was a microbiologist at the forefront of 20th century discoveries (lambda virus, gene transfer, fertility factor F, etc.) in bacterial genetics that are now ushering in 21st century revolutions in biotechnology.

What’s unfortunately not revolutionary, however, was the overshadowing of her career by that of her (ex-)husband, Nobel Prize winner Joshua Lederberg. Besides making major contributions to his Nobel-winning work, she developed innovative tools and methods that allowed better study of the incredibly small. It goes without saying, but lacking the edge these techniques provided, her husband’s laureateship may have been at risk.

One of these tools was remarkably simple, but nevertheless incredibly powerful. This was replica plating. A piece of velvet is held taut in the shape of a petri dish, a dish with isolated bacterial colonies on it transfers an identical pattern of the colonies to the velvet. This creates a “stamp” for the colonies, allowing the re-creation of the same species’ colonies in the same pattern on any type of plate a researcher would want (e.g. with or without a critical nutrient to see the effect on the bacteria). Then, researchers can test differentially affected colonies and probe what makes them distinct.

Later in her career, Lederberg headed the Plasmid Research Center, a now-defunct institute at Stanford. Here, she oversaw the study, cataloging, and distribution of countless newly discovered bacterial plasmids (circular pieces of DNA) that contained resistance-contributing genes and many others that are now hallmarks of microbiology labs across the world.

Beyond the gender bias in science, Esther Lederberg serves as another example of bias: that of a researcher who makes enormous and impactful contributions that don’t get big splashy headlines. That don’t get Nobels (fun fact: she and her husband were the first team to share a microbiology prize a mere two years before he received the Nobel). That don’t necessarily get you a place in popular memory.

Why is this? Tens of thousands of researchers everyday must use plasmids of genes she first systematically studied. How can we better ensure tool makers, information sharers, disseminators, and distributors get fair credit? By sharing their stories bit by bit and base by base.

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