Pontecorvo | Guido | 1907-1999 | Italian geneticist

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Guido Pontecorvo's long association with animal genetics sprang from his interest in biology whilst he was a schoolboy in his native Pisa. He studied at Pisa University, and was already a reputable researcher in genetics at Florence when he was dismissed as a result of the anti-semitism of the Italian authorities during the fascist era. The head of Animal Genetics at Edinburgh University, Alick Buchanan-Smith, had met 'Ponte' in Edinburgh the previous year and offered him a research post.

At King's Buildings Ponte worked with other European refugees who were expert researchers in this field, and together they laid the foundations at Edinburgh of a new phase of genetical science. Despite a period of internment as an enemy alien, Pontecorvo completed his PhD (1941) on the chromosomes of fruit flies (Drosophila). In 1945 he was appointed the first lecturer in Genetics at Glasgow University, and under his professorship of Genetics there from 1955-1968 the department gained an international reputation for the excellence of its research.

Later he switched from Drosophila to the genetics of the fungus Aspergillus Nidulans because it allowed him to contribute towards the urgent development of penicillin at the end of World War II, and also because it allowed him to more easily study the structure and function of the gene - rather than its biochemistry. This medium led to the discovery of asexual reproduction (parasexual cycle) in fungi, and to his later theory that the gene was a functional unit. He was thus a pioneer of microbial genetics, or more specifically the genetics of mutation and chromosomal translocations, and the genetics of a new micro-organism.

Independently he also recognised, correctly, that the parasexual cycle if studied in cell cultures would contribute to the knowledge of human genetics. From 1968-1975 he was at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund laboratories in London. Whilst working there on mammalian cancer he devised the polyethylene glycol method of fusing animal cells. A building at Glasgow University has been named in his honour.


Pontecorvo's studies in genetics were inspired whilst assisting the plant geneticist E. Avanzi at the Faculty of Agriculture in Florence. His first collaborator in Scotland was the German geneticist, Hermann Muller 1890-1967 with whom he developed a method of producing sterile hybrids from crossing species. At Edinburgh too he discovered in collaboration with J.A. Roper in 1950 the cycle that causes genetic re-assortment without sexual reproduction (parasexual cycle). Whilst at Glasgow he and E. Kafer mapped new mutations in a single step and chromosomal translocations in A. nidulans.

Other Significant Information

Notable publications: numerous research papers and monographs including:

Trends in Genetic Analysis, ( 1959)

Topics in Genetic Analysis, ( 1984)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1955: Elected Fellow, Royal Society

1955: Appointed President and founder member of the Institute of Biology

1955: Appointed President and Secretary, Genetical Society of Great Britain

1962: Appointed Leeuwenhoek Lecturer, Royal Society

1978: Awarded Darwin Medal of Royal Society

1978: Awarded Hansen Prize for Microbiology, Carlsberg Foundation

1982-1983: Appointed Raman Professor, Indian Academy of Science

1984: Appointed Honorary Fellow, Indian Academy of Science


List of sources for the biographical information:

Fungal Genetics Newsletter, ( http://www.fgsc.net/fgn47/47obit.htm, 1999)

A Dictionary of Scientists, OUP, ( wysiwig://10/http://xrefer.com/entry/495028, 2000)