Barbara McClintock and Her Jumping Genes

Today is the birthday of Barbara McClintock, who was born June 16, 1902.  Dr. McClintock is currently the only female ever to receive an unshared Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.  And she had to endure decades of skepticism and ridicule before her work was ever acknowledged.

As a botanist, McClintock studied maize, a type of corn characterized by different-colored kernels.  Because each maize kernel is an embryo produced by individual fertilization, it is ideal for genetic analysis.

In the 1930s, scientists believed that chromosomes were fixed and unchanging, like beads on a string.  McClintock demonstrated instead that chromosomes can move, break, cross over and recombine, creating new genetic traits.  She further showed that such chromosomal changes can be passed from parents to offspring.  Her work was considered so revolutionary at the time that she was ridiculed by the scientific community and largely ignored.

It was not until four decades later, after scientists unlocked the genetic code, that McClintock was finally proven correct.  Transposons, or “jumping genes,” actually constitute more than 65 percent of the human genome.  McClintock won the Nobel Prize in 1983 for her pioneering work in cytogenetics (cellular genetics).

Today, epigenetics (the concept of heritable changes not caused by changes to the DNA sequence) is a fundamental concept in genetics.  McClintock’s pioneering work has been especially valuable in current disease research.  Scientists believe that jumping genes are involved in the transformation of normal cells into cancerous cells.

Agilent is a leading provider of solutions for genomics and genetics research.  Agilent provides a wide range of solutions, including SureSelect target enrichment, SurePrint microarrays, qPCR and PCR, that help researchers gain a better understanding of how epigenetics plays a role in cancer, human disease and cell development.


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