While it might seem like common knowledge that genetic information is carried by DNA it wasn’t until 1952 when Dr. Martha Chase and Dr. Alfred Hershey published their findings that the scientific community would agree on this fact.
Martha Chase was a recent graduate from the College of Wooster in Ohio and was hired as a research assistant by biologist Dr. Hershey who was investigating how viruses replicate. The two worked at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and together came up with an experiment to determine if DNA or its associated protein carried the genetic material for infection, growth, and development.
Their experiment was elegant in its simplicity: using radioactive traces that marked the DNA core and the protein coat of a bacterial virus, or phage, the researchers placed the material in a blender and switched it on. Once the blender had separated the protein from the DNA, careful examination showed that only the DNA had entered the bacteria at the time of infection and that this DNA led to the replication of the virus. Known as the Hershey-Chase experiment officially and the “blender experiment” unofficially their findings would provide one of the foundations of molecular biology and help inspire further work on understanding the structure of DNA.
Leaving Cold Spring Harbor in 1953 Chase accepted a position at Oak Ridge National Laboratory but would return to Cold Spring Harbor each summer during the 1950s to be part of the meetings of the Phage Group. This group of biologists was an informal network that contributed heavily to bacterial genetics and the origins of molecular biology during the mid-20th century.
In 1959 she began work on her doctorate at the University of Southern California and after earning her degree she worked in research jobs around USC. In the 1960s she suffered several personal setbacks including job loss, a painful divorce, and the end of her scientific career. And for reasons unknown, but speculation includes her gender, when Dr. Hershey was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1969 for his part of the Hershey-Chase experiment, her contributions were completely overlooked.
Written by Angela Goad