Max Delbrück and the Genes

Max Delbrück (1906-1981)
Foto: Dr. Ernst Peter Fischer

On September 4, 1906, German biophysicist and Nobel laureate Max Delbrück was born in Berlin. His best known achievement for that he won the Nobel prize was the discovy that bacteria become resistant to viruses (phages) as a result of genetic mutations.

Max Delbrück’s father Hans Delbrück was a professor of history at the University of Berlin, and his mother was the granddaughter of Justus von Liebig, the famous German chemist who made major contributions to agricultural and biological chemistry, also often referred to as ‘father of the fertilizer industry‘. Delbrück studied astrophysics, shifting towards theoretical physics, at the University of Göttingen. Having earned a Ph.D. in 1930, his interest shifted towards biology. Nevertheless, in 1932 he became an assistant to Lise Meitner, who was collaborating with Otto Hahn on irradiation of uranium with neutrons. In 1937, he attained a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to research genetics of the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, in California Institute of Technology’s biology department, where he researched bacteria and their viruses (bacteriophages).

During World War II Delbrück remained in the US, teaching physics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, while continuing his genetic research. In 1942, he and Salvador Luria of Indiana University demonstrated that bacterial resistance to virus infection is mediated by random mutation. This research, known as the Luria-Delbrück experiment, notably applied mathematics to make quantitative predictions, and earned them both the 1969 Nobel Prize in Medicine for their discovery on the replication of viruses and their genetic structure.

Max Delbrück was influential in the 20th century’s movement of physical scientists into biology. His inferences on genes’ susceptibility to mutation was relied on by physicist Erwin Schrödinger in his 1944 book What Is Life?, which influenced Francis Crick and James D. Watson in their 1953 identification of cellular DNA’s molecular structure as a double helix. On March 9, 1981 Max Delbrück passed away at age 74.

“The progress of science is tremendously disorderly, and the motivations that lead to this progress are tremendously varied, and the reasons why scientists go into science, the personal motivations, are tremendously varied. I have said … that science is a haven for freaks, that people go into science because they are misfits, and that it is a sheltered place where they can spin their own yarn and have recognition, be tolerated and happy, and have approval for it.” (Max Delbrück, 1978)

At yovisto you can learn more about modern genetics in the lecture series of Prof. Eric Ladder from Massachussetts Institut of Technology.



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