Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics

The Guido Pontecorvo papers

[What is] important is to have good ideas and the imagination, integrity and energy to put them to the most stringent tests which could disprove them.

Guido Pontecorvo, from an address to research students at the University of Pavia, 1993

At the University of Glasgow, Guido Pontecorvo led an international centre for genetics research, pioneering the study of genetics in fungi and cultured mammalian cells.

Guido Pontecorvo (1907-1999) sought to understand the fine structure of the gene by exploring its rearrangements through mutation and recombination. His organism of choice was the mould Aspergillus nidulans, which he discovered could reproduce by fusing the DNA of two non-sex cells. He called this the 'parasexual cycle', and went on to show that the same genetic mechanisms could be studied in human cells in culture. His patent on the parasexual cycle, with co-applicants Alan Roper and Giuseppe Sermonti, was the first anywhere for a biological process.

Pontecorvo in lab
Guido Pontecorvo at work at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, 1964
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His first mentor in basic genetics was Hermann Muller at the University of Edinburgh. Pontecorvo was a refugee from Fascist Italy; Muller was an American Drosophila geneticist who had been working in Moscow, but had to leave when political interference and the rise of Lysenkoism made further work impossible. With such an introduction, 'Ponte', as he liked to be known, quickly established a worldwide circle of correspondents working on the fundamentals of cellular genetics. His letters to and from these friends and colleagues are at the core of this collection.

In 1945 Pontecorvo moved to establish a new research department of genetics at the University of Glasgow, and he set about expanding it with bright students and researchers. These included James Renwick and Malcolm Ferguson-Smith, both of whom became pioneers of human medical genetics in the decades following the discovery of the double helix.

The collection includes many photographs taken by Pontecorvo that have been collated into albums, some of which feature notable geneticists. They also illustrate his other main passion, the ecology and photography of alpine plants: Glasgow University Archive Services holds thousands of colour slides, assembled for a book that he never completed.

Originals held by... 

 This material has been provided by Glasgow University Archive Services where originals may be consulted.

"Attractive though sometimes irascible" was the verdict on Guido Pellegrino Arrigo Pontecorvo of his close friend and colleague Bernard L Cohen. Born to a family of wealthy Italian industrialists of Jewish heritage, Pontecorvo studied agriculture and instituted an important programme of cattle breeding in Tuscany in the 1930s. In 1938 he was dismissed from his post in Florence by the application of Nazi-inspired racial laws, but was offered research work at the Institute of Animal Genetics at the University of Edinburgh.

Pontecorvo and Watson
Guido Pontecorvo and James Watson in Valais, Switzerland, August 1953
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With help from the Academic Assistance Council, Pontecorvo undertook a PhD in genetics at Edinburgh, which he completed in under two years despite internment on the Isle of Man as an 'enemy alien' following Italy's entry into the War. On his release in 1941 he was given lab space in the University of Glasgow. He conducted innovative and productive research on fungal genetics, encouraged studies on the genetics of human disease, and, in little more than a decade, was appointed Glasgow's first professor of genetics.

Working hard to recruit new staff and institute research programmes, he put his department on the map internationally, notwithstanding his claim to run it with no more than the assistance of a part-time secretary and a wastepaper basket. However, he became dissatisfied with the burden of administration and spent his last seven years before retirement as a researcher at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund laboratories in London. He and his wife, Leni, maintained an international network of friends and colleagues, and he frequently travelled to give talks - though he often planned his speaking engagements to complement his visits to the mountains where he photographed alpine plants.

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