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Symposium Celebrates 100 Years of UW-Madison Genetics

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Madison, Wisconsin - It's been an eventful 100 years.


This week, faculty, students, alumni, and friends of the Department of Genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison will gather to celebrate its storied first century.


The Genetics Centennial Symposium and annual Oliver Smithies Symposium will take place May 20-22 in the Microbial Sciences Building on the UW-Madison campus and features presentations on the past, present, and future of genetics research.


The College of Agriculture created the department, the first of its kind in the country, in 1910 at the urging of former Wisconsin governor and UW Regent William D. Hoard, founder of the influential dairy farming magazine "Hoard's Dairyman."


Established as the "Department of Experimental Breeding" under the helm of Leon J. Cole, the department's lone faculty member for the first nine years, the department first focused on genetics as a means toward improving agricultural animals and plants.


The department changed its name to the Department of Genetics in 1918 and began to expand in both size and scope shortly thereafter. Many of the department's early contributions had roots in both agriculture and a fundamental understanding of biology - for example, hybrid corn development, cattle blood typing, and potato breeding.


"Basic research became an important component of the department early on," says Millard Susman, a UW-Madison professor emeritus who has been in the genetics department since 1962.


The emphasis began to shift more fully toward basic science with the arrival of Joshua Lederberg, who arrived fresh from graduate school in 1947. He made an impressive series of discoveries in bacterial genetics and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1958 for his work on sexual reproduction in bacteria.


"When he discovered sex in bacteria, people weren't even sure there were genes in bacteria," Susman recalls. "It was really a tremendous contribution to biology."


Interested in the connections between genetics and medicine, Lederberg founded the Department of Medical Genetics in 1957. While the two departments still maintain independent identities, they jointly form the UW-Madison Laboratory of Genetics.


The Laboratory of Genetics now has 44 faculty members whose research spans yeast to humans, with world-renowned expertise in topics including population genetics, genetic engineering, and genomics. This week's celebration will also recognize the 50th anniversary of the Department of Medical Genetics.


The Smithies Symposium on May 20 is sponsored by Nobel Laureate and former UW-Madison faculty member Oliver Smithies. This year's talks feature Gerald Fink, who pioneered genetics research on yeast, and Martin Chalfie, a Nobel Laureate who made a landmark contribution to genetic technology using the roundworm C. elegans.


On May 21-22, a series of renowned speakers with ties to the Laboratory of Genetics will present sessions on neurogenetics, evolutionary genetics, agricultural genetics, and medical genetics.


The event will conclude with a retrospective view of "100 Years of Genetics: Some History" by three emeritus faculty members, Susman and James Crow, each of whom chaired the Laboratory for many years, and Rayla Temin, renowned for her teaching and research on fruit flies. Temin is the widow of UW-Madison oncologist and Nobel Laureate Howard Temin.

Date Published: 05/19/2010

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Symposium Celebrates 100 Years of UW-Madison Genetics

Last updated: 03/25/2014
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