The Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics was formed in 2000 when the Section of Genetics, Development and Physiology (GDP) merged with the Section of Biochemistry, Molecular and Cell Biology (BMCB). These sections were each created as part of what was then the Division of Biological Sciences, which formed in 1964 to unite faculty members from the Colleges of Arts and Sciences and Agriculture and Life Sciences. In 2007, the Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology was founded with many members of MBG as an interdisciplinary research institute focusing on cell signaling and molecular dynamics.
Geneticists of the original Section of GDP were drawn primarily from the Department of Plant Breeding. The Department of Plant Breeding could be traced back to the era of Rollins A. Emerson and his “school” of maize geneticists of the 1920s and ’30s. Emerson’s group carried out research that established maize as one of the best-known ‘genetic’ organisms and worked out many extensions of Mendelian principles. Some of Emerson’s students and others associated with his group went on to be the most influential geneticists of their generation - Nobel laureates George W. Beadle and Barbara McClintock, as well as distinguished geneticists Milislav Demerec, Marcus Rhoades, George Sprague, Charles Burnham, and E.G. Anderson. In the 1980s, Gerald Fink, as a member first of the Section of Genetics and Development and later of the Section of Biochemistry, Molecular and Cell Biology, developed a method to express DNA from another organism in yeast cells, an approach that is now very widely used.
Roots in Biochemistry, Molecular and Cell Biology
The Section of BMCB has an equally illustrious history. James B. Sumner (Nobel Prize for Chemistry, 1946) purified and crystallized an enzyme (urease) and demonstrated that it was a protein, thus resolving a long-standing controversy. Robert Holley received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1968 for determining the sequence and structure of alanyl tRNA. Beginning in 1966, Efraim Racker (National Medal of Science Awardee) led and built the Section of Biochemistry, hiring a large number of scientists with exceptional careers, including Ray Wu, who trained Jack Szostak, a recent Nobel Laureate; Leon Heppel, who demonstrated the permeability of biological membranes to sodium and potassium ions; and Quentin Gibson, who measured enzymatic and hemoglobin reactions using instruments he developed.
Formation of a New Department
In 1996, faculty in the sections of both BMCB and G&D sent a letter to the Provost and the Deans of Arts and Sciences and Agriculture and Life Sciences presenting a Molecular and Cellular Biology Initiative and requesting an external review of basic biological sciences at Cornell. Their collective goal was to reinvigorate research and teaching programs that were lagging behind as technologies for exploring life at the molecular and cellular levels rapidly advanced. The ensuing external review and reorganization of the Division of Biological Sciences resulted in the formation of a new Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics in 2000.
The scope of MBG is unique, as it spans the research interests of biology faculty across campus and provides them with intellectual and organizational support. Thus, the Graduate Fields managed by the department (Biochemistry, Molecular and Cell Biology; Genetics, Genomics and Development; and Biophysics) are remarkable because they have the same number of faculty (or more) from other departments as from MBG. Similarly, in response to the growing role of computation in biology, faculty in the new department organized the formation of the Graduate Field of Computational Biology and the Undergraduate Program of Study in Computational Biology, programs that now serve students from many departments.