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Four University of California Bioscientists:

Gunther Siegmund Stent (1924- )

Molecular Biology at Berkeley


Gunther S. Stent came to Berkeley as an Assistant Research Biochemist in 1952, at the invitation of Wendell M. Stanley, Director of the Virus Laboratory. During Stent's long tenure at the University, he played an instrumental role in shaping and developing new departments and programs, such as the Department of Virology (1957) and the Department of Molecular Biology (1964). From 1980 to 1986, he was Director of the Virus Laboratory and Chair of the Department of Molecular Biology, and from 1987 to 1992 founding Chair of the much expanded Department of Molecular and Cell Biology. He is currently Professor Emeritus of Neurobiology. Called "a vanishing breed of generalist," Stent has made fundamental contributions in three distinct areas: molecular biology, neurobiology, and the history and philosophy of science.

His textbook Molecular Genetics (1970, 1978) is regarded as a classic. He wrote over 100 articles on leech neuroembryology and neurophysiology. He also authored Phage and the Origins of Molecular Biology (with James D. Watson and John Cairns) (1966; 1992), and edited Function and Formation of Neural Systems (1977) and The Double Helix: a personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA (with James D. Watson) (1980). His autobiography, Nazis, Women and Molecular Biology, was published in 1998.

A mentor and the Phage Lab
Max Delbrück, one of this century's most influential biologists, trained as a quantum physicist with Neils Bohr. Influenced by his mentor, Delbrück sought to find in biology new laws of physics and chemistry. Stent joined Delbrück's bacteriophage (phage for short) laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in 1948 and became a member of the phage group that enthusiastically pioneered bacterial genetics and a new understanding of fundamental biological processes. Its work centered on the phage viruses that infect bacteria. This period laid the basis for a lifelong friendship and collaboration, resulting in scientific articles and several books dedicated to or about Delbrück. Mind from Matter, based on 20 lectures by Delbrück, was published after Delbrück's death  by Stent.

Stent to Berkeley
Stent came to the University of California at Berkeley in July 1952 as an Assistant Biochemist at the invitation of Wendell M. Stanley, Director of the Virus Laboratory. He is shown above with his wife, musician Inga Loftsdottir, outside the Pasteur Institute in Paris shortly after their marriage.
Reshaping the academic discipline and departmental structure

Stent played an instrumental role in shaping and developing new departments and programs, leading to the establishment of a Department of Molecular Biology on the Berkeley campus. He had a formative influence in establishing the Division of Neurobiology as well, and, over his long tenure, in the mentoring of the next generations of molecular biologists and neurobiologists. 

A collaborator with James D. Watson

With Watson, Stent edited the celebrated Phage and the Origins of Molecular Biology (1966), and the Norton critical edition of The Double Helix... (1980). The latter includes a selection of reviews sparked by the publication of the original in 1968. It also contains Aaron Klugís re-evaluation of the vital contribution that Rosalind Franklin's research in crystallography had made toward the discovery of the structure of DNA.

Original summary of Watson's discovery of the structure of DNA, with annotations by biologist and colleague Nelville Symonds, that Symonds took to Stent in April 1953. "I picked him [Symonds] up at the Greyhound depot in downtown San Francisco, and as he was jumping out of the bus from L.A., he was waving said note and yelled, 'Gunther! They've got the structure of DNA!' " 

The note at bottom, summarizing Rosalind Franklin's work in crystallography, was not included in Watson's original letter announcing the discovery to Max Delbrück, March 12, 1953. 

Leeches and a patented drug
On sabbatical leave in 1972, Stent studied neurobiology at Harvard Medical School where he became interested in working with the leech. Subsequently, he published over 100 articles on the neuroembryology and neurophysiology of the leech, including this one in Science.
From 1974 to 1981, the UC Berkeley leech colony supported the Stent groupís research in neuroembryology and neurophysiology. One result was the discovery and patenting of a new anti-coagulant, hementin. The patent is shown here. In addition, thousands of leeches were exported from the leech farm at the Gill Tract in Albany, California to laboratories around the country. 

In 1978, Stent was awarded a National Institutes of Health grant to develop a large-scale leech breeding program. He and his assistant, Roy T. Sawyer, faced the complexities of domesticating wild leeches. Sawyer once remarked, "The leech is quite temperamental. It's something akin to breeding orchids."

Sawyer later patented Orgelase, a product made by Biopharm (which he founded in 1987) to cure blindness in adults. In the fall of 1982, the spraying of herbicides around Gill Tract in Albany, where the leech colony was housed, resulted in its almost complete destruction. 

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