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Biologist, who tied genes to behavior, has died

Seymour Benzer, a groundbreaking biologist whose work linking behavior and genes laid the foundation for modern neuroscience, has died. He was 86.
Image: Biologist Seymour Benzer
Seymour Benzer challenged common thinking that human behavior is shaped primarily by environment — and emphasized the role of genes.Tim Roske / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Seymour Benzer, a groundbreaking biologist whose work linking behavior and genes laid the foundation for modern neuroscience, has died. He was 86.

Benzer died of a stroke Friday morning at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, said Jill Perry, a spokeswoman for the California Institute of Technology, where Benzer was professor emeritus.

"Seymour was one of the great scientists of our era," Elliot Meyerowitz, chairman of Caltech's biology department, said in a statement. "He was an amazing person, a truly original scientific thinker, and an adventurous character both in and out of his scientific work."

Benzer's research in the 1960s countered the common belief that human behavior was shaped primarily by environment, giving genes a far bigger role than they were previously assigned.

"The impact is opening up the whole idea that behavior can be dissected by manipulation, studying the genes," Benzer told The Associated Press last year. "It's an entire cycle. Every step of the way is under genetic control."

His research led to major discoveries in the exploration of diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

In April 2006, Benzer was awarded the nation's richest prize in medicine and biomedical research, the US$500,000 Albany Medical Center prize.

He "paved the way for scientists to uncover links between genes and human behavior which have resulted in our improved ability to treat diseases of the brain and central nervous system," James J. Barba, president and chief executive officer of Albany Medical Center, which gave Benzer the prize, said at the time.

In perhaps his most well-known work, Benzer manipulated the gene mutations of fruit flies in the late 1960s.

In one study, Benzer and a student corrected the sleep patterns of the flies by injecting them with genes from other fruit flies.

That and related work essentially led to the new field of neurogenetics, and many of his colleagues believe it ought to have won him a Nobel Prize, one of the few awards that eluded him.

"He was a giant in science," David Anderson, Caltech biology professor and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, said in a statement. "He started an entire field, and few people can claim to have done that."

Benzer was still working late in his life. As recently as the late 1990s, he and colleagues discovered a gene that let fruit flies live longer and resist heat, starvation and even poison.

Flies with this gene, dubbed the "Methuselah" after the long-lived man in the Bible, lived an average of 35 percent longer than those without it, Benzer, Yi-Juan Lin and Laurent Seroude said in an article in the journal Science.

Benzer received more than 40 major awards, including the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, the National Medal of Science and the Peter Gruber Award for Neuroscience.

In 2000, he was the subject of the book "Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior," by Jonathan Weiner.

Benzer grew up in New York City, graduated from Brooklyn College and received his master's and Ph.D. degrees in physics from Purdue University.

He became interested in neurogenetics after the birth of his second daughter, who he said behaved radically differently from his first.

Benzer is survived by wife Carol Miller, two daughters, a son, two stepsons and four grandchildren.