Janet E. Mertz

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Janet E. Mertz
Alma materMIT
Stanford University
Known forRecombinant DNA
Gender & Math
Scientific career
InstitutionsUniversity of Wisconsin, Madison
Doctoral advisorPaul Berg[citation needed]
Other academic advisorsJohn B. Gurdon
Harvey Lodish

Janet E. Mertz (born 1949) is an American biochemist, molecular biologist, and cancer researcher.[1] She is currently the Elizabeth McCoy Professor of Oncology in the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.[2] Mertz is best known for disputing Lawrence Summers’ 2005 suggestion that women lack the intrinsic aptitude to excel in mathematics at the highest level [3] [4] [5] [6] and for discovering an easy method for joining together DNAs from different species [7] [8][9] .[10] This latter finding initiated the era of genetic engineering whose ramifications form the basis of modern genetics and the biotechnology industry.

After completing bachelor degrees in biology and electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mertz attended graduate school at Stanford University from 1970-1975, earning a Ph.D. in Biochemistry. While taking a course held at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in summer 1971, she mentioned her plan to grow mutants of the oncovirus, SV40, by molecular cloning of them in the human gut bacterium, E. coli. This event led, initially, to a voluntary moratorium on cloning of viral oncogenes and, later on, the cloning of any DNA that might contain potentially biohazardous materials until theoretical safety concerns could be addressed and guidelines for their safe use could be developed and implemented

In the interim, in collaboration with Ronald W. Davis, Mertz discovered that DNA ends generated by cutting with the EcoRI restriction enzyme are “sticky”, permitting any two such DNAs to be readily “recombined”. Using this discovery, in June 1972 she easily created the first recombinant DNA that could have been cloned in bacteria [11] [12] .[13] Her success with this project contributed to her thesis adviser, Paul Berg, receiving the 1980 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.[14] However, Mertz did not proceed with this cloning because of the moratorium in place at that time, leaving it for Herbert Boyer, Stanley N. Cohen and their colleagues to prove in 1973 that recombinant DNAs made by this method can actually self-replicate in bacteria.[15] Thus, most of Mertz’s Ph.D. thesis centered, instead, around developing other ways to create, select, and grow mutants of SV40 for studying this virus’ functions and so it could be used as the first eukaryotic cloning vector.[16] The US Patent 4,237,224, Process for Producing Biologically Functional Molecular Chimeras”, which generated over $250 million in licensing and royalty income, listed only Boyer and Cohen as co-inventors [10] .[17] Some have questioned whether these patents were valid given the earlier publications by Peter Lobban and A. Dale Kaiser [18] [19] and the Berg laboratory [11] [20] that were already in the public domain at the time this application was filed in November 1974 [10][21]

Later research and academic career[edit]

Mertz spent 15 months as a postdoctoral researcher at the Medical Research Council (United Kingdom). In collaboration with John B. Gurdon and Edward M. De Robertis, she showed that biological macromolecules injected into frog oocytes are properly used, providing the first way to study many aspects of gene expression in a higher eukaryote [22] .[23]

Mertz has been a member of the University of Wisconsin - Madison faculty since 1976. Her laboratory studies regulation of expression of the genes of the DNA oncoviruses SV40, hepatitis B virus, and Epstein-Barr virus and the roles the nuclear receptor estrogen-related receptor α plays in breast cancer and regulating the activities of estrogen receptor α.


  1. ^ American Men and Women of Science – Gale.
  2. ^ Janet Mertz’s homepage at UW-Madison
  3. ^ Sara Rimer, Math Skills Suffer in U.S., Study Finds, New York Times October 10, 2008
  4. ^ Sharon Begley, The Math Gender Gap Explained, Newsweek June 1, 2009
  5. ^ Sarah Zielinski, Girls CAN Do Math (Duh), Smithsonian Magazine June 4, 2009
  6. ^ News Staff, Debunking Myths About Gender and Math, Science 2.0 December 12, 2011
  7. ^ Paul Berg, interview by Sally Smith Hughes, 1997, (2000) A Stanford Professor’s Career in Biochemistry, Science Politics, and the Biotechnology Industry. Program in the History of the Biosciences and Biotechnology, Regional Oral History Office, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
  8. ^ Doogab Yi (2008) Cancer, Viruses, and Mass Migration: Paul Berg’s Venture into Eukaryotic Biology and the Advent of Recombinant DNA Research and Technology, 1967-1980, J. History of Biology 41:589-636.
  9. ^ Errol C. Friedberg (2014) A Biography of Paul Berg: The Recombinant DNA Controversy Revisited, World Scientific.
  10. ^ a b c Doogab Yi (2015) The Recombinant University: Genetic Engineering and the Emergence of Stanford Biotechnology, University of Chicago Press.
  11. ^ a b Janet E. Mertz & Ronald W. Davis (1972) Cleavage of DNA by R1 restriction endonuclease generates cohesive ends. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 69:3370-3374.
  12. ^ Janet E. Mertz’s laboratory notebooks, 1971-1973 available as part of the Paul Berg Papers collection, 1953-1986, housed in the Department of Special Collections and University Archives at Stanford University Libraries.
  13. ^ Janet E. Mertz, Ronald W. Davis, and Paul Berg (1972) Characterization of the cleavage site of the RI restriction enzyme, abstract presented on August 16, 1972 at the 4th Annual Tumor Virus Meeting, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, NY.
  14. ^ The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1980
  15. ^ Stanley Cohen et al. (1973) Construction of biologically functional bacterial plasmids in vitro. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 70:3240-3244.
  16. ^ Paul Berg (1980) Nobel lecture 1980: Dissections and reconstructions of genes and chromosomes. Nobel Lectures: Chemistry 1971-1980, World Scientific
  17. ^ Sally S. Hughes (2001) Making dollars out of DNA: the first major patent in biotechnology and the commercialization of molecular biology 1974-1980. Isis 92:541-575.
  18. ^ Peter E. Lobban (1972) An Enzymatic Method for End-to-end Joining of DNA Molecules. Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford University.
  19. ^ Peter E. Lobban & A. Dale Kaiser (1973) Enzymatic end-to-end joining of DNA molecules. J Mol Biol 78: 453-471.
  20. ^ David A. Jackson, Robert H. Symons, and Paul Berg (1972) Biochemical method for inserting new genetic information into DNA of simian virus 40. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 69:2904-2909.
  21. ^ Stephanie Chen (2014) Authorship and inventorship: An analysis of publishing and patenting norms and their consequences at American universities. Senior Thesis, Duke University
  22. ^ Janet E. Mertz & John B. Gurdon (1977) Purified DNAs are transcribed after microinjection into Xenopus oocytes. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 74:1502-1506.
  23. ^ Edward M. De Robertis & Janet E. Mertz (1977) Coupled transcription-translation of DNA injected into Xenopus oocytes. Cell 12:175-182.

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