George Wells Beadle

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Wahoo, Nebraska
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Wahoo, Nebraska

George Wells Beadle was an American geneticist who won the 1958 Nobel Prize in Medicine for uncovering the role of genes in regulating biochemical activities within cells. Born in Nebraska, United States, his father was a well-to-do farmer and it was believed that he would follow his footstep once he finishes his studies. However, urged by his science teacher he initially entered College of Agriculture under the University of Nebraska for his bachelor’s degree and then went on to receive his M.S. and PhD degree from the University of Cornell. Afterwards he won fellowship and did his postdoctoral from Caltech. However, his significant work, for which he got the Nobel Prize, was done at the University of Stanford. Here he worked with Edward Tatum on Neurospora crassa. They found that the structure of a given enzyme was controlled by a specific gene and that each enzyme permitted a single chemical process to complete. The concept is known as ‘one gene-one enzyme hypothesis’. Later, he transferred back to Caltech and as Chairman of its Biology Division he developed it into a center of expertise. He continued his studies even after he retired and established that genetically there is little difference between Teosinte and maize. However, owing to Alzheimer’s condition his last days were spent estranged from reality.

Childhood & Adolescence

George Wells Beadle was born in Wahoo, Nebraska, on October 22, 1903. His father, Chauncey Elmer Beadle, was a prosperous farmer who owned forty acres. He was also extremely independent, diligent, and entrepreneurial. Hattie Albro Beadle, George’s mother, died in 1908, when he was just five years old.

Beets, as George Wells Beadle was affectionately known, had an older brother and a younger sister. Unfortunately, his elder brother died in 1913, leaving ten-year-old Beadle to care for her younger sister and assist his father on the farm in any way possible.

Beadle’s early education took place at Wahoo High School. George was expected to join the family farm when he passed out. However, events transpired differently.
Bess McDonald, Beadle’s science teacher, saw his talent and persuaded him to enroll at the College of Agriculture at the University of Nebraska, which he did despite his father’s wishes. Beadle thoroughly loved his stay there and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1926.

He then joined the Department of Plant Breeding at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture, where he got his M. Sc. degree in 1927. Here, he studied sterile maize mutants and showed that mutations can influence the production of sex cells, eggs, and pollen.

This work, which was published in fourteen pieces, served as the foundation for his doctoral dissertation. He earned his Ph.D. in 1930 with a thesis titled ‘Genetic and Cytological Studies of Mendelian Asynapsis in Zea mays.’
A National Research Council Fellowship for postgraduate work at the California Institute of Technology was also awarded to him in 1930. Consequently, he moved to Pasadena.

George Wells’s Career

Henry Wells In 1931, Beadle enrolled at the California Institute of Technology and continued his research on maize. Subsequently, he joined Thomas Hunt Morgan’s laboratory and collaborated with other notable scientists on Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly) research. His research established that genes have a chemical effect on heredity.

He has been wondering for some time now how the genes control the process of embryonic development. He then collaborated with visiting French embryologist Boris Ephrussi to study Drosophila’s development, with a particular emphasis on its eye pigments.

He spent six months in Paris in 1935. Beadle and Ephrussi set out to test whether an imaginal disc from one larva would develop into an eye when transplanted into another larva at the Institut de Biologie Physico-Chimie.
They eventually succeeded in developing an adult fly with three eyes, two in the conventional head location and one in the belly. This work laid the groundwork for his subsequent research on the genetics of the fungus Neurospora.

In 1936, he left Caltech to become an Assistant Professor at Harvard University. The following year, he moved to Stanford University and began researching gene function in depth. Edward Tatum recently joined his team, and the two scientists have begun working in close partnership.

They quickly realized that Drosophila was not the greatest model for the research they were conducting. They began experimenting with Neurospora crassa, a fungus that frequently develops on decaying vegetation.
Then, in 1941, after much investigation, they concluded that each gene determined the structure of a particular enzyme, which in turn affects the creation of the desired metabolite. Their hypothesis became known as the “one gene-one enzyme hypothesis.”

Beadle accepted an invitation to join the California Institute of Technology in 1946 as Professor of Biology and Chairman of the Division of Biology. Here, he abandoned active research to focus on transforming the division into a center of excellence.

Additionally, it was his goal to combine genetics and biochemistry in order to create a new discipline. Then, he hired other outstanding scientists who labored to expand his theories and later disseminated them to colleges around the United States. It resulted in the advent of molecular genetics much later.

Beadle resigned as Chancellor of the University of Chicago in January 1961. He later became President of this University after that year. He retired from that position in 1968 and became Director of the American Medical Association’s Institute for Biomedical Research, where he served until 1970.

He continued experimenting after ostensibly retiring from active duty. He developed a succession of Teosinte/Maize hybrids in numerous facilities around the United States and Mexico. He established conclusively that Teosinte is the wild ancestor of maize.

Additionally, he wrote a lot of books. Among these are ‘An Introduction to Genetics’ (1939; co-authored with A.H. Sturtevant), ‘Genetics and Modern Biology’ (1963), and ‘The Language of Life’ (1965). (1966; with Muriel M. Beadle).

His Significant Works

Beadle is best remembered for his work on the ‘one gene-one enzyme hypothesis.’ This work was accomplished in close collaboration with Edward Tatum. They began by mutating Neurospora by exposing it to X-rays and discovered that some of the sprouting cells were unable to develop in the minimum culture medium provided.

These were then isolated and a large number of normal metabolites were introduced to the culture medium in groups and then individually. After years of laborious experimentation, the two scientists demonstrated that genes function by producing enzymes.

Additionally, they found that each gene is responsible for the production of a single enzyme, which impacts a single step in a metabolic pathway. The theory became known as the ‘one gene-one enzyme hypothesis’ and was essential in the development of biochemical genetics.

Awards and Accomplishments

In 1958, George Wells Beadle and Edward Tatum shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for “discovering that genes function by regulating specific chemical reactions.” They split the award with Joshua Lederberg for his work on genetic recombination.

Beadle received the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research from the Lasker Foundation in 1950. By the way, the prize is frequently referred to as America’s Nobel Prize.
In 1984, he was awarded the Genetics Society of America’s Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal for his lifetime contributions to the study of genetics.

Personal History and Legacy

In 1928, he met Marion Hill, who was then pursuing a master’s degree in botany at Cornell University. In the same year that they wed, their son David was born in December 1931. Trouble began, however, when they returned to Caltech in 1946. They finally separated in the summer of 1953.

Not long after, Beadle wed Muriel McClure Barnett, the renowned editor of the Los Angeles Times’ Women’s Section, and adopted Muriel’s son, Redmond Barnett. Towards the end of their lives, they moved to a retirement community in Pomona, California, where he led an active lifestyle tending to his garden.

Around the age of eighty, Beadle was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, which got so severe that he eventually lost touch with reality. He remained in this condition until June 9, 1989, when he died.
The Genetics Society of America created the ‘George W. Beadle Award’ in his honor in 1999. This is a renowned award presented to genetics researchers who have made “exceptional contributions.”

The Beadle Center, which houses the University of Nebraska-Department Lincoln of Biochemistry, is named in his honor. George W. Beadle is also the name of a middle school. George Beadle Middle School is located in Millard Public Schools.

Estimated Net worth



While Beadle’s ‘one gene-one enzyme concept’ was sufficiently validated by other scientists, it has since evolved significantly. It is now understood that not all genes determine one enzyme and that some enzymes are composed of a number of small polypeptides.