He Spent 17 Years in a Room Filled with Flies

American biologist Thomas Hunt Morgan was born on September 25, 1866.  As a child, he was fascinated by fossils and bird eggs.  As an adult, he became fascinated by experimental zoology, seeking physical and chemical explanations for the way organisms developed.  He rejected Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection in favor of the possibility of biological evolution, and spent years looking for a mutation that could be inherited.

In 1910, Morgan was surprised to find a single white-eyed male among a swarm of red-eyed fruit flies.  When he bred the white-eyed male with a red-eyed female, all of the offspring were red-eyed.  However, a second generation produced some additional white-eyed males!  Morgan realized that hereditary traits were carried on specific chromosomes, and that some traits were sex-linked.  He proposed that chromosomes contain collections of smaller units called genes.  (“Gene” is derived from the Greek genesis for “birth” and genos for “origin.”)

Morgan and his students spent 17 years in Columbia University’s “Fly Room” – a 16 x 23-foot room described as “cramped, dusty, smelly and cockroach ridden” – where they studied thousands of fruit flies and their successive generations.  One of his students developed the first genetic map in 1913, and their discoveries formed the basis for modern genetics.

Morgan was awarded the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work.  The Division of Biology that he established at the California Institute of Technology has produced seven Nobel Prize winners.  Today, the “Morgan is the unit for measuring distances along chromosomes.

While genetics studies specific genes and their role in inheritance, the more complex field of genomics studies an organism’s entire genetic makeup, including its interaction with non-genetic factors.

Agilent is a leading provider of genomics solutions, including microarrays, reagents, instruments and software.  Agilent recently introduced SureGuide, the first in a new series of kits to advance genome editing and synthetic biology.


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