Joshua Lederberg, Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist who shaped the field of bacterial genetics, and served as chair of The Scientist’s advisory board since 1986, died on Saturday (February 2). He was 82.
Lederberg shared a Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine in 1958 for the discovery that certain strains of bacteria reproduce by mating, thereby exchanging their genetic material. This overturned the idea held at the time that bacteria did not warrant genetic study and set the field of bacterial genetics into motion.
Lederberg truly was a visionary, and along with his ex-wife, Esther (who died just over a year ago), really jump-started the field of microbial genetics (and indeed, made it much easier to study genetics, period), winning a Nobel prize for his genetic work when he was only 33. Years later, he teamed up with Carl Sagan to raise awareness about microbes in space, and was an advocate of science communication and sound policy (serving as an advisor for multiple presidents). In recent years, he’s spoken out about antibiotic resistance and bioterrorism, among other topics, and always emphasized the importance of basic research in microbiology. He could also give a helluva interesting talk, judging from the few times I’ve seen him speak. He was truly a living legend, and the void he leaves is palpable.