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Biotechnology pioneer Joshua Lederberg dies at 82

WASHINGTON - Joshua Lederberg, whose work helped lay the ground for genetic engineering and biotechnology, died of pneumonia last Saturday, Rockefeller University said. He was 82.

Lederberg, a geneticist and microbiologist considered one of the most eminent and influential scientists of the 20th century, won the Nobel prize in 1958 at the age of 33 for his work in bacterial genetics.

He advised nine U.S. presidents and was an early proponent of space biology. He helped introduce computers and artificial intelligence into laboratory research.

Joshua Lederberg was born in Montclair, New Jersey, on May 23, 1925. His parents were immigrants from Palestine: Zvi Lederberg, an orthodox rabbi, and Esther Schulman, descendant of a long line of rabbinical scholars.

Although his father hoped he would choose a religious career, Lederberg felt drawn to science at an early age.

After graduating from high school at age 15, Lederberg earned a bachelor's degree from what was then Columbia College at 19 and his doctorate from Yale University in 1947.

At Yale he helped discover that Escherichia coli bacteria can reproduce sexually and swap genes, a finding that made E. coli a standard for lab experiments.

While working with Salmonella bacteria, Lederberg discovered and named plasmids, which are bits of DNA in bacterial cells that replicate separately from DNA found on the chromosomes.

In 1951 he learned that viruses can carry new genes into bacteria, and named the process transduction. It helped set the stage for genetic engineering.

He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Edward Tatum and George Beadle "for his discoveries concerning genetic recombination and the organization of the genetic material of bacteria."

Lederberg was president of Rockefeller University in New York from 1978 until 1990, and stayed on as president emeritus of molecular genetics and informatics.

He was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1989 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006.

Lederberg is survived by his wife, Dr. Marguerite Lederberg of New York, a son and daughter and two grandchildren.

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