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Mary-Claire King

Mary-Claire King
Illinois, US
InstitutionsUniversity of Washington, University of California, Berkeley
Alma materUniversity of California, Berkeley
Academic advisor  Allan Wilson
Known forGenetics, Human rights
Notable prizesHeineken Prize, Weizmann Award

Mary-Claire King (1946- ) is an American human geneticist. She is professor at the University of Washington, where she studies the genetics and interaction of genetics and environmental influences on human conditions such as HIV, lupus, inherited deafness, and also breast and ovarian cancer. King is known for three major accomplishments: identifying breast cancer genes; demonstrating that humans and chimpanzees are 99% genetically identical; and applying genomic sequencing to identify victims of human rights abuses.


Scientific career

King began her career with a degree in mathematics (cum laude) at the age of 19. She completed her doctorate in 1973 at the University of California, Berkeley in genetics and epidemiology, after her advisor Allan Wilson persuaded her to switch from mathematics to genetics. In her doctoral work at Berkeley (1973), she demonstrated through comparative protein analysis that chimpanzees and humans are 99% genetically identical, a finding that stunned the public at the time, revolutionized evolutionary biology, and is today common knowledge.[1] King's work supported Allan Wilson's view that chimpanzees and humans diverged only five million years ago, and King and Wilson suggested that gene regulation was likely responsible for the significant differences between the species,[2] a prescient suggestion since borne out by other researchers.[3]

King completed postdoctoral training at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) before accepting a faculty appointment at the University of California, Berkeley, as professor of genetics and epidemiology (1976-1995).

While on the faculty at Berkeley, King demonstrated in 1990 that a single gene on chromosome 17, later known as BRCA1, was responsible for many breast and ovarian cancers -- as many as 5-10% of all cases of breast cancer may be hereditary. [4] The discovery of the "breast cancer gene" revolutionized the study of numerous other common diseases; prior to and during King's 16 years working on this project, most scientists had disregarded her ideas on the interplay of genetics with complex human disease. Genetics had been used in diseases with a single genetic tie, such as Huntington's disease, cystic fibrosis, and sickle-cell anemia, but researchers were skeptical about genetics' utility in the more common kinds of diseases that included multiple genetic factors and environmental factors as well.

The technique King developed to identify BRCA1 has since proven valuable in the study of many other illnesses, and King has built on to that research by identifying BRCA2, and extending her technique to other diseases and conditions.[5]

Since 1990 King has also begun working in collaboration with scientists around the world to identify genetic causes of hearing loss and deafness. They successfully cloned the first nonsyndromic deafness-related gene in 1997. King continues to work with scientists Karen Avraham in Israel and Moien Kanaan in Palestine, modeling international scientific cooperation in conjunction with conducting scientific research. Hereditary deafness is common in Palestine, providing good study populations to understand the genetics.

King has also worked on the Human Genome Diversity Project, which seeks to delineate the distinctions between individuals in order to further understanding of human evolution and historical migrations.

King remained at Berkeley until 1995, when she took an appointment as the American Cancer Society Research Professor at the University of Washington.

Human rights work

King first applied her genetics skills to human rights work in 1984, when she and her lab began working with Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo in Argentina to use dental genetics to identify missing persons, ultimately identifying and returning to their homes more than 50 children. The missing persons included at least 59 children, most born to women targeted and "disappeared" by the Argentinean military dictatorship during the eight-year "dirty war" of the 1970s and 1980s. These children, after being removed from their imprisoned mothers, were often illegally "adopted" by military families without their mothers' consent. Las Abuelas ("the grandmothers") had gathered data trying to identify the children, and every Thursday, marched to the central plaza in Buenos Aires ("Plaza de Mayo") to demand the return of their grandchildren. The Argentinian government would not return the children without "proof" of kinship, however, and King's technique, using mitochondrial DNA and HLA-serotyping genetic markers from dental samples, proved invaluable. The Supreme Court of Argentina in 1984 determined that King's test had positively identified the relationship of Paula Logares to her family, establishing the precedent for the ultimate reunification of dozens of families with their stolen children. [6]

Since 1984, this technique has become a major method for genetic identification of the deceased as well as the living. King employed the technique to identify the remains of individuals massacred in the village of El Mozote, El Salvador. More than 750 adults and children were massacred and buried in mass graves by the US-trained military. [7]

King has worked with numerous human rights organizations, such as Physicians for Human Rights and Amnesty International, to identify missing people in countries including Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Rwanda, the Balkans (Croatia and Serbia), and the Philippines. King's lab has also provided DNA identification for the U.S. Army, the United Nations, and the U.N.'s war crimes tribunals.

While she has become renowned in humanitarian circles for her genetics identification work, King has been politically engaged her entire life. She protested the Vietnam War during her college years,[8] and described as

[t]he single most effective thing we did was on the day after the US invaded Cambodia, we got out our suit jackets and shirtwaist dresses -- not clothes that any of us had worn since coming to Berkeley -- and went to synagogues and churches and by the end of Sunday we had 30,000 letters opposing the action."[9]

King later worked with Ralph Nader studying the effects of pesticides on farm workers, before completing her doctoral work with Allan Wilson. In the early 1970s she was teaching science in Santiago, Chile, when Chilean President Salvador Allende was assassinated on Sept. 11, 1973, in a CIA-backed coup. In science, she has been supportive of women and ethnic and sexual minorities in science,[10] and critical of genetic patenting. [11]

Personal biography

King was born near Chicago in 1946. Her childhood best friend died of cancer when King was 15 years old, feeding King's interest in her future profession. [12] She graduated from Carleton College at the age of 19 with a B.A. in mathematics, and received her Ph.D. from the University of California in 1972/1973.

King married and divorced a fellow scientist with whom she had one child, Emily, in 1975. Emily studied the evolution of languages at Brown University. King's younger brother Paul King was CEO of Vanalco, in Vancouver, Washington. [13]

Awards, prizes, and honors

Dr. King has won numerous awards, prizes, and honors for her scientific and humanitarian work, including: [14]

  • Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Medicine (2006). [15]
  • Weizmann Women & Science Award (2006). [16]
  • Peter Gruber Foundation Genetics Award (2006) [17]
  • National Academy of Sciences (2005)
  • Honorary Doctor of Science, Harvard University (2003) [18]; honorary doctorates from Carleton, Smith, Bard, and Dartmouth Colleges and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (2006)
  • Clowes Award for Basic Research American Association for Cancer Research
  • Jill Rose Award, The Breast Cancer Research Foundation
  • Brinker Award, Susan G. Komen for the Cure
  • Woman of the Year Award, Glamour Magazine
  • Phi Beta Kappa
  • Sigma Xi
  • Fellow of the AAAS
  • Institute of Medicine
  • Council, Institute of Medicine

Notable professional service:

  • Robert Wood John Foundation’s Minority Medical Faculty Development Program, Scientific Advisory Board
  • United Nations War Crimes Tribunal
  • UN Forensic Anthropology Team
  • National Cancer Institute’s Breast Cancer Task Force
  • National Institutes of Health Genome Study Section
  • Office of Research on Women’s Health Advisory Board

King has five patents and over 200 peer-reviewed journal articles.


  1. ^ Mary-Claire King, Protein polymorphisms in chimpanzee and human evolution, Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Berkeley (1973).
  2. ^ King, Protein polymorphisms in chimpanzee and human evolution (1973); King MC, Wilson AC, "Evolution at Two Levels in Humans and Chimpanzees," Science 1975, 188:107-16.
  3. ^ See, for example, Gilad Y, Oshlack A, Smyth GK, Speed TP and White KP, "Expression profiling in primates reveals a rapid evolution of human transcription factors", Nature v. 440, pp. 242-245 (2006 March 9).
  4. ^ Hall JM et al, "Linkage of early-onset familial breast cancer to chromosome-17q21," Science 1990, 250:1684-9; see also Inventor of the Week, MIT, Oct. 1998, for update and overview of importance of work.
  5. ^ Interview with King at the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
  6. ^ See "Using genetics for human rights", The Online Daily of the University of Washington (1997).
  7. ^ See Natalie Angier, "Scientist at Work: Mary-Claire King; Quest for Genes and Lost Children", New York Times (April 27, 1993).
  8. ^ Inventor of the Week, MIT.
  9. ^ "The Scientist: Mary-Claire King", 18(5):16 (2004).
  10. ^ See King, "The Biggest Obstacle Is How to Have Enough Hours in the Day", The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 10, 2005
  11. ^ Profile: Mary-Claire King, Nature Medicine 9, 633 (2003).
  12. ^ "The Gene Factor: Mary-Claire King, Prevention Pioneer", Pharmaceutical Achievers.
  13. ^ "Putting the Puzzle Together", Sept. 1996.
  14. ^ See Biography at Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
  15. ^ See Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, Heineken Prizes
  16. ^ See Eurekalert Press Release, 2006 Aug.
  17. ^ See Peter Gruber Foundation Genetics News, 2004 Press Release; Peter Gruber Foundation biography.
  18. ^ See Harvard Public Health NOW, June 13, 2003.

See also

  • Laurie McHale, "Putting the Puzzle Together", Sept. 1996 (available at ).
  • "Genomic Views of Human History", one-hour video program March 14, 2000, including interviews with Mary-Claire King (available at ).

See also

  • Portuguese entry
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Mary-Claire_King". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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