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Pioneering Caltech DNA researcher Roy Britten dies at 92

Photo of Roy Britten via Caltech.edu

Roy John Britten, a pioneering Caltech DNA researcher and Princeton Ph.D nuclear physicist who switched fields to biophysics after working on the Manhattan Project, has died at age 92, Caltech officials announced Thursday.

A Caltech Distinguished Carnegie Senior Research Associate, Emeritus, and one-time adjunct professor at UC Irvine, Roy Britten continued to publish papers into his 90s, remaining active in the scientific community until his death on Jan. 21.

Beginning his academic career as a physicist, the "committed pacifist" who worked on the Manhattan Project in World War II was "always pleased to say that his particular project was a complete failure," his son said in a statement, notes the Pasadena Sun.

Interested in the fundamental characteristics of animal DNA, the Washington D.C. native arrived at Caltech's Kerckhoff Marine Laboratory in Corona del Mar in 1971 to study genomes.

The Pasadena Sun:

Britten's research on the organization and evolution of DNA sequences and on gene expression during development helped lay the foundations for modern genomics, developmental biology, and the study of regulatory-gene evolution. "He was one of the truly brilliant people I have known," said Eric Davidson, the Norman Chandler Professor of Cell Biology at Caltech, who worked closely with Britten for many years.

One of Britten's greatest early contributions, Davidson said in the statement, was his discovery in 1968 that an animal's genome - including ours - contains sequences of DNA that are repeated throughout, in addition to sequences that exist only as single copies. This finding was a "timeless intellectual tour de force," Davidson said.

Additionally a science fiction writer, oil painter, flute player and sailor, Britten voyaged around the world and lived for years on a schooner in Newport Bay.

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