During the twentieth century in the United States, Alfred Day Hershey studied phages, or viruses that infect bacteria, and experimentally verified that genes were made of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. Genes are molecular, heritable instructions for how an organism develops. When Hershey started to study phages, scientists did not know if phages contained genes, or whether genes were made of DNA or protein. In 1952, Hershey and his research assistant, Martha Chase, conducted phage experiments that convinced scientists that genes were made of DNA. For his work with phages, Hershey shared the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Max Delbrück and Salvador Luria. Hershey conducted experiments with results that connected DNA to the function of genes, thereby changing the way scientists studied molecular biology and the development of organisms.

In 1951 and 1952, Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase conducted a series of experiments at the Carnegie Institute of Washington in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, that verified genes were made of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. Hershey and Chase performed their experiments, later named the Hershey-Chase experiments, on viruses that infect bacteria, also called bacteriophages. The experiments followed decades of scientists’ skepticism about whether genetic material was composed of protein or DNA. The most well-known Hershey-Chase experiment, called the Waring Blender experiment, provided concrete evidence that genes were made of DNA. The Hershey-Chase experiments settled the long-standing debate about the composition of genes, thereby allowing scientists to investigate the molecular mechanisms by which genes function in organisms.

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