Esther Miriam Zimmer Lederberg

1922 - 2006

Esther Lederberg was an American microbiologist and a major pioneer of bacterial genetics. She discovered the bacteriophage lambda which has since become widely used as a tool in microbiology.


Graduating from high school in The Bronx, New York at the age of 16, Lederberg majored in biochemistry and went on to pursue a master’s in genetics at Stanford University. She proved her dedication to her work and education: at times of financial struggle, she resorted to eating frogs legs left over from dissections.

Her discovery of the lambda phage in 1950 revolutionised our understanding of viruses. Unlike anything known at the time, lambda is able to integrate its DNA harmlessly into that of the bacterial genome. When a host bacterium reproduces itself, it reproduces and passes on the phages’ DNA along with its own. Studying the behaviour of lambda phages gives us a better understanding of how similar viruses, like herpes, work – as well as other phenomena such as how genes are transferred between bacteria and how genes are regulated. Lederberg’s development of new techniques for growing bacterial colonies provided the first evidence that bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics spontaneously.


As picked by...

Aoife de Bhál, Public Engagement Intern