Landmark Studies in Biology

All studies are sorted chronologically and grouped in a certain period of time for a better readability.

Prior to 1940s

  1. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek's letter on the protozoa (a review by Nick Lane) was published in 1677, made him universally acknowledged as the father of microbiology. He observed the world of microbes with his simple single-lensed microscope.
  2. Immunotherapy has a long history (a review by Edward F. McCarthy), where it dated back to 1891. The product colloquially known as Coley's Toxins were the work of Dr. William B. Coley. He injected streptococcal organisms into patients with inoperable tumor, with some results showing that tumors were shrinking. He was crowned as the father of immunotherapy. However, his findings did not take off really well because of its obscured mechanism that no known technology could elucidate back then. On the other hand, radiation therapies for cancer were picking up pace. Guess where Coley worked. It was New York Cancer Hospital, now better known as Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
  3. Discovery of the blood types which is widely credited to Karl Landsteiner, who identified A, B, and O blood types in 1900. Later in 1907, Jan Jansky's 4 groups of blood types classification (A, B, AB, and O) remains in use.
  4. Discovery of the first oncogene, the v-Src in 1911 by Peyton Rous. He named it as Rous Sarcoma Virus (RSV), an oncogenic retrovirus. It only infects and causing tumor in chicken. Peyton Rous was awarded Nobel Prize in 1966.
  5. Michaelis-Menten kinetics was devised (review) in 1913 by Leonor Michaelis & Maud Leonora Menten. Since then (about 100 years ago), Michaelis-Menten kinetics has become the standard for measuring enzyme kinetics. Michaelis & Menten did their study based on thesis by Victor Henri, published about a decade before that.
  6. The Mechanism of Mendelian Heredity in 1915 by Thomas Hunt Morgan (book) with several other people. This book then served as the fundamental textbook of the new genetics. Interestingly, Morgan was anti-Darwinian until he wasn't anymore. TH Morgan received the Nobel Prize in 1933.
  7. The scientific discovery of lysozyme in 1922 by Alexander Fleming. The phenomenon was first observed in 1909. Fleming made the discovery by treating bacterial cultures with nasal mucus from a sick patient (euw, I know). Lysozyme was the first enzyme to be characterized by the X-ray crystallography in 1965 (with a 2 Å resolution). Lysozyme is also the first enzyme that was fully sequenced in 1967.
  8. The scientific discovery of the first antibiotic, the pencillin G (reprinted) in 1929 by Alexander Fleming. He wasn't really convinced that his discovery would make a dent in the human history and he decided to abandoned penicillin. His work was picked up by Howard Florey & Ernst Boris Chain in Oxford, mass-produced it and by 1944, penicillin was used in the World War II to treat Allied Forces.

1941 - 1960

  1. One gene one enzyme hypothesis in 1941 by Beadle and Tatum. They were studying the red bread mold Neurospora crassa by irradiating that organism with X-rays. Both received Nobel Prize in 1968, shared with another person which was Joshua Lederberg.
  2. The double-helix structure of DNA in 1953 by Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, and Francis Crick. PBS NOVA broadcasted a 56-minute documentary in 2003 about this discovery with the title DNA - Secret of Photo 51. The documentary is very moving and it credits Rosalind Franklin that she actually deserves.
  3. The semi-conservative nature of DNA replication in 1958 by Matthew Meselson & Franklin Stahl. After scientists solved the structure of the DNA, the next burning question was how DNA could replicate? The answer is "semi-conservative" replication where one strand is passed down (also acts as a replication template) while the other strand is synthesized from the template.
  4. The discovery of restriction endonucleases (review) in 1950s-1960s by Salvador Luria, Mary Human, Giuseppe Bertani, Jean Weigle, Werner Arber, Matthew Meselson, Bob Yuan, and Hamilton Smith. Here's a Wikipedia entry and here's a review written by Smith.
  5. HeLa cells immortalized (Wikipedia) in 1951 by George Gey. A full account of the story can be found in Rebecca Skloot's book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Wikipedia). Don't forget about Margaret Gey & Mary Kubicek who had helped along.

1961 - 1980

  1. Knudson's two-hit hypothesis of retinoblastoma in 1971 by Alfred G. Knudson. He was following cases of retinoblastoma, then proposed the mechanism of two-hit on a gene that controls cell proliferation. This is the statistical foundation that leads to the concept of the loss of heterozygosity (LOH): two copies of a tumor-controlling (a.k.a tumor suppressor gene, TSG) must be mutated to allow cancer to happen.
  2. Edwin Southern came up with a DNA blotting technique that bears his name, the Southern blot, in 1975. I heard a story that when Southern announced this technique, sales of paper towels to molecular biology labs went astronomical. Southern invented this technique when he as at the Medical Research Council, UK. According to him, necessity is the mother of invention, while laziness being the father.
  3. The hybridoma technology (review) in 1975 by César Milstein & Georges J. F. Köhler. Thanks to both of them and their associates, the production of monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) through the hybridoma technology sparked another revolution by making it easier to develop molecular markers and for therapeutic purposes. Milstein & Köhler received the Nobel Prize in 1984.
  4. First human cell line transformed with a viral agent in 1977 by F. L. Graham & J. Smiley. The viral vector was human adenovirus type 5 and the cell line is the famous HEK293, derived from human embryonic kidney cells. Fun fact: HEK293 is a permissive cell line for transfection.

1981 - 1999

  1. Kary Mullis demonstrated PCR (Wikipedia entry) for the first time in December 1983. Legend has it that Mullis was under the influence of LSD (a psychoactive substance) when he was tinkering with his ideas. He received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993. The PCR back then when Mullis first demonstrated was hard to utilize: you need to constantly replenish the polymerase because it was destroyed by the heat (which is necessary to denature two DNA strands). Later in 1986, DNA polymerase from Thermus aquaticus (i.e. Taq polymerase) was demonstrated as the suitable polymerase for PCR (by Saiki et al., Cetus Corporation).
  2. Molecular mechanism of retinoblastima in 1986 by investigators in Robert A. Petersen's lab. If I got this correctly, this is the study where a group of investigators managed to map the molecular identity of retinoblastoma. This study also verifies Knudson's two-hit hypothesis (15 years later). To add more, this is the first tumor-suppressor gene identified and characterized on a molecular level.

2000 - Current

  1. Discovery of the Yamanaka Factors to create iPS cells in 2006. From 24 gene candidates, the authors shortlisted 5 factors: Oct3/4, Sox2, Nanog, c-Myc, and Klf4. Yamanaka was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2012 for this discovery.