Norton D. Zinder

The Rockefeller University

November 7, 1928 - February 3, 2012

Scientific Discipline: Genetics
Membership Type:
Emeritus (elected 1969)

Norton Zinder was a leader in the field of molecular biology through his discovery of genetic transduction. He observed that when bacteriophages insert their viral DNA into host bacteria, that DNA sometimes becomes incorporated into the host bacteria’s genome, which then replicates and passes on the newly acquired genetic information. While studying viruses, he found a certain class that has RNA as its primary genetic information and was able to deduce the universal start codon—triplet nucleotide sequence—that begins protein synthesis.

Zinder had a profound impact on scientific policy and practice. In 1973 he was appointed chairman by the advisory board of the National institutes of Health to evaluate the National Cancer Institute’s Virus Cancer program. After reviewing the program he completely reorganized the program to cut excess spending. He was very active within the National Academy of Sciences serving on numerous committees such as the Committee on Recombinant DNA Molecules of the National Research Council and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which made recommendations for the disposal of chemical weapons. He was also a founding member of the Human Genome Project, the international effort to map the entire human genome.

Zinder graduated from Columbia University with a B.A. in 1947 and earned his M.S. and PhD from the University of Wisconsin in 1949 and 1952. He began his long career teaching microbial genetics at Rockefeller University, then Rockefeller Institute, in 1952 and remained there for the rest of his career. He received many prestigious awards including the Eli Lily award in bacteriology in 1962 and the NAS Award in Molecular Biology (then called the U.S. Steel Award in Molecular Biology) in 1966.

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