By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Norton Zinder, a biologist whose research into the genetic material of viruses and bacteria led to a greater understanding of the most fundamental building blocks of life, has died at age 83.
His death was confirmed on Wednesday by The Rockefeller University in New York City, the institution he joined in 1952 and at which he spent most of his career. Zinder died on Friday after a long illness.
Zinder was a prodigious talent, graduating from Columbia University at the age of 18 and making one of his most important discoveries while still a graduate student in his early twenties.
Working with Joshua Lederberg, he discovered that viruses could transfer genes from one bacterium to another, a previously unknown mechanism of producing genetic variety that the team chose to call 'transduction'.
The discovery, made several years before the structure of DNA was fully understood, would allow later researchers to manipulate infectious strains of bacteria that had otherwise become resistant to antibiotics, among other uses.
He continued his work in the burgeoning field of molecular biology at The Rockefeller University, helping to shed light on the functions of DNA, RNA and proteins - the most basic molecules of life.
Later in his career, he became an influential voice in shaping the policies and ethics that govern scientific research. In the 1970s, he chaired a committee that examined the work of the National Cancer Institute, resulting in a major reorganization of the institute's research efforts.
He also was a founding member of the Human Genome Project, an international effort to identify and map out the roughly 20,000 genes that appear in the 23 pairs of chromosomes found in most human cells.
Zinder was born in New York City on November 7, 1928. He was married to the former Marilyn Estricher, who died in 2004, and is survived by two sons and five grandchildren, according to The Rockefeller University.
(Editing By Barbara Goldberg and Paul Thomasch)