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Thomas Hunt Morgan: The Fruit Fly Scientist

Innovator. Thomas Hunt Morgan began his career when genetics was not a defined field of study, and biology was primarily based on observation and classification. Morgan valued experimentation over observation, and he became interested in broad questions about the very nature of life. What were inherited factors? Where were they located? How were they passed from one generation to the next? Incredibly, Morgan tackled these questions with the help of the common fruit fly.

Young naturalist. Morgan was born on September 25, 1866, in Lexington, Kentucky, the son of a former Confederate officer, and the great-grandson of Francis Scott Key, composer of the "Star-spangled Banner." His career as a naturalist began during childhood with the collection of bird eggs and fossils. He began college at age 16; by age 24, he had earned his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. His research interests were biology, embryology, and marine life. In fact, Morgan would continue to spend summers at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, for most of his life.

The fly room. Morgan wanted to understand heredity and mutation, which is genetic change. After teaching for 13 years at Bryn Mawr College, he moved on to Columbia University where he established the famous "fly room." The Drosophila melanogaster, or fruit fly, is a good genetic research subject because it can be bred cheaply and reproduces quickly. Morgan was not the first to use the fruit fly as a subject, but his innovation and success popularized its use. Simple in design and easy to conduct, his early experiments are classics in genetics. Even today, no undergraduate genetics education is complete without some time spent breeding Drosophila.

The discoveries. By painstakingly examining thousands upon thousands of flies with a microscope and a magnifying glass, Morgan and his colleagues confirmed the chromosomal theory of inheritance: that genes are located on chromosomes like beads on a string, and that some genes are linked (meaning they are on the same chromosome and always inherited together). One of his students, Alfred Sturtevant, created the first ever genetic map, a landmark event in genetics.

Moving on. In 1928, Morgan became the head of the new biology department at the California Institute of Technology. He used his position to focus new research on experimentation versus passive observation, and he was finally able to establish a lab dedicated to marine biology research, which kept him occupied for the rest of his life.

Lasting legacy. Morgan's work on the role of chromosomes in heredity was recognized in 1933 with the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. He continued to work until his death on December 4, 1945, at age 79. Colleagues remember him as a generous man with an infectious enthusiasm for his work. As a mentor Morgan had a knack for spotting and fostering talent, and many of his students went on to make important contributions to their fields.

This page appears in the eBook Essentials of Genetics, Unit 3.4

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