Would that he were Methuselah: Seymour Benzer, 1921-2007

A moment of silence for the great biologist Seymour Benzer, who died last Friday at the age of 86. He is best known for his early work in bacteriophage genetics, where his painstaking studies of recombination in the rII phage system provided some of the earliest evidence of the linear substructure of genes. His research group’s subsequent work on behavioral genetics of Drosophila gave us the first circadian rhythm mutant (per).

Here at Ouroboros, we’ll remember him as a biogerontologist: Benzer’s lab identified one of the earliest known fruit fly aging mutants, methuselah. This mutant demonstrated the generality of the idea that single-gene changes to dramatically enhance longevity, thus extending observations made by Kenyon and others in the worm C. elegans. While its significance did not go unchallenged, the discovery of methuselah inspired dozens of other labs to seek lifespan mutants in the fly, and marked the dawn of Drosophila as an important model system in the biology of aging.