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Papers of Molecular Biologist, NIH Researcher, and Science Advocate Maxine Singer Added to the National Library of Medicine's Profiles in Science Web Site

(Bethesda, Md.)--The National Library of Medicine announces the release of an extensive selection from the papers of the biochemist and science advocate Maxine Frank Singer on its Profiles in Science Web site. The Maxine Singer project is a collaboration with the Library of Congress, the repository of her papers. With this addition the number of prominent researchers, public health officials, and promoters of medical research whose personal and professional records are presented on Profiles has grown to twenty-five. The site is at //

During a career spanning nearly six decades, Singer has made important contributions to the deciphering of the genetic code and to our understanding of the synthesis and structure of RNA and DNA, the chemical elements of heredity. She championed the cause of women and minorities in science and built innovative programs to improve science education. Singer also took a leading role in devising safety guidelines for the controversial new technology of recombinant DNA in the 1970s.

"For many years, Maxine Singer has been an inspiring leader in research and in public discourse over the ethical and political responsibilities of scientists," says Donald A. B. Lindberg, MD, director of the National Library of Medicine. Neither academia nor industry were welcoming to women scientists at the time Singer enrolled at Swarthmore as a chemistry major in 1948. But she had the fortune of finding supportive mentors there, at Yale while earning her Ph.D., and at the National Institute of Arthritis, Metabolism, and Digestive Diseases, which she joined as a postdoctoral fellow in 1956 and where she would remain until 1975.

In the wake of James Watson and Francis Crick's discovery of the double-helical structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), Singer entered the emerging field of nucleic acid chemistry, a decision that brought her to the forefront of the new science of molecular biology. The artificial RNA polymers she produced with Leon Heppel in the course of their work on the structure and synthesis of ribonucleic acid (RNA) enabled Marshall Nirenberg and Heinrich Matthaei to unravel the genetic code in the early 1960s. Singer subsequently studied genetic recombination in defective animal viruses and the structure of the chromosomal DNA-protein complex called chromatin. In the 1980s, she discovered that repeated DNA sequences called LINES (long interspersed repeated sequences) are mobile genetic elements that can jump from place to place on chromosomes in mammalian cells, sometimes inducing genetic mutations that cause disease.

During the early 1970s, as debate over the potential risks of the first gene recombination experiments grew ever more heated, Maxine Singer was a leading voice in balancing scientific principles and public welfare. Recombinant DNA research promised to revolutionize the understanding of genetics, but because they involved manipulation of genes, scientists and laymen alike worried that these experiments might produce new pathogens that could endanger human health or irrevocably alter the environment. Singer helped organize the landmark Asilomar Conference in February 1975, at which scientists agreed to impose restrictions on this research, and to develop a framework for removing these restrictions as knowledge of the science advanced.

In 1975, Singer joined the National Cancer Institute, rising to chief of the Laboratory of Biochemistry in 1980. In 1988 she was elected president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, one of the nation's preeminent private research organizations in biology, astronomy, and the earth sciences.

Singer's many honors include election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1978) and the National Academy of Sciences (1979). In 1992, she was awarded the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest scientific honor. Singer has written over a hundred scientific articles and has co-authored several books, including Genes and Genomes (1991) and Dealing with Genes (1993).

Profiles in Science was launched September 1998 by the National Library of Medicine, a part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., a constituent agency of the Department of Health and Human Services.