Jacqueline K. Barton
Jacqueline K. Barton. Courtesy Jacqueline Barton.
Jacqueline K. Barton (b. 1952) probes DNA by shooting electrons through it. Using custom-built molecules to direct these electrical currents, she can locate genes, see how they are arranged, and scan them for damage. Her techniques may lead to new ways to diagnose diseases and treat them through DNA repair. To further this end, she cofounded GeneOhm Sciences in 2001, which became part of Becton, Dickinson and Company in 2006.
Barton was born and raised in New York City. Her father was a state supreme court justice; her mother, a Belgian Jew who escaped to England ahead of Hitler’s invading army and then immigrated to the United States. Barton did not study chemistry in high school, since it was not offered at her girls’ preparatory school. Not until she entered Barnard College of Columbia University did she take her first chemistry class and lab. She loved the subject and decided to make it her career. She stayed at Columbia for her Ph.D., then worked at Bell Labs and taught at Hunter College, City University of New York, before returning to Columbia as a professor. Later she took a position at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, where she married Peter Dervan, also an accomplished chemistry professor, with whom she has one daughter.
Barton first became interested in DNA during graduate school. She has since spent her career studying the electrical conductivity of DNA. She was among the first to demonstrate this strange property, and no one knows if it helps DNA carry out its job of carrying genetic information. Barton is hoping to find answers to this question.
Barton has also shown that certain damaged DNA molecules do not conduct electricity. Since damaged DNA can cause many kinds of cancer, she hopes that her discovery will eventually help doctors detect damaged DNA before cancer results. In addition Barton has investigated how some metal compounds (called “complexes”) interact with DNA molecules. Evidence suggests that metal complexes can be used to repair damaged DNA.
Among her many honors, Barton was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2002.