Mary-Claire King

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Mary-Claire King
Born (1946-02-27) February 27, 1946 (age 76)
Illinois, United States
Residence United States
Nationality American
Fields Biologist
Institutions University of Washington, University of California, Berkeley
Alma mater Carleton College
University of California, Berkeley
University of California, San Francisco
Doctoral advisor Allan Wilson
Known for Genetics, Human rights
Notable awards Heineken Prize
Gruber Prize in Genetics (2004)
Weizmann Award (2006)
Pearl Meister Greengard Prize (2010)
Lasker Award (2014)

Mary-Claire King (born February 27, 1946)[1] is an American human geneticist. She is a professor at the University of Washington,[2] 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;[3] and applying genomic sequencing to identify victims of human rights abuses. In Argentina, for example, in 1984 she began working with Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo) in identifying children who had been stolen from their families and adopted illegally under the military dictatorship during the Dirty War (1976-1983).


King had an undergraduate degree in mathematics (cum laude) from Carleton College. She completed her doctorate in 1973 at the University of California, Berkeley in genetics, 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.[4] 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,[4][5][6]

King completed postdoctoral training at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

Scientific career

King accepted 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.[7] 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 the use of genetics in the more common diseases caused by multiple genetic factors as well as environmental influences.

The technique King developed to identify BRCA1 has since proven valuable in the study of many other illnesses. King has built on that research by identifying BRCA2, and extending her technique to other diseases and conditions.[8]

Since 1990 King has been working in collaboration with scientists around the world to identify genetic causes of hearing loss and deafness. They successfully cloned the first non-syndromic deafness-related gene in 1999. King continues to work with scientists Karen Avraham in Israel and Moien Kanaan in the West Bank, modeling international scientific cooperation in conjunction with conducting scientific research. Hereditary deafness is common amongst some endogamous Arab communities, providing good study populations to understand the genetics.

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

At the request of Dr. William Maples, King participated in DNA investigations of the first analysis of Romanov remains exhumed in 1991 in Ekaterinburg, Russia.

In 1995, King 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 Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo) in Argentina. She used dental genetics to identify missing persons, ultimately identifying 59 children and helping return them to their biological families. Most had been born to women in prison who had been persecuted as political dissidents and were later "disappeared" by the Argentine military dictatorship during the eight-year "Dirty War" from 1976-1983. These children were often illegally "adopted" by military families without their mother's or other family consent.

Beginning in 1977 Las Abuelas ("the grandmothers") had gathered to protest the disappearance of their grandchildren and seek their return. Every Thursday, they marched to the central plaza in Buenos Aires ("Plaza de Mayo") to demand the return of their grandchildren, and they began gathering data trying to identify the many missing children (estimated to be 400-500).

By the time King joined the project, the dictatorship had been replaced by a democratic government, but it required proof of kinship to remove children from families and return them to biological families. King's technique, using mitochondrial DNA and human leukocyte antigen 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.[9]

Since 1984, this technique has become a major method for genetic identification of the deceased as well as the living. In 1993 King used 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 US-trained Salvadoran soldiers[10] (Atlacatl Battalion).

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,[11] 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."[12]

While doing graduate work, King later worked with Ralph Nader studying the effects of pesticides on farm workers. 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. She has been supportive of women and ethnic and sexual minorities in science,[13] and critical of genetic patenting.[14]

Personal biography

King was born in Wilmette, Illinois in 1946 and has a younger brother, Paul King.[citation needed] When King was 15 years old, her childhood best friend died of cancer. King became interested in science in the hope of learning enough to prevent and treat such illnesses.[15] She graduated from Carleton College at the age of 20 with a B.A. in mathematics and received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley in 1972/1973.

King married a fellow scientist with whom she had one child, Emily, in 1975. They later divorced. Emily has studied the evolution of languages at Brown University.

King's younger brother Paul King was CEO of Vanalco, in Vancouver, Washington.[10][16]

Awards, prizes, and honors

Dr. King has won numerous awards, prizes, and honors for her scientific and humanitarian work, including:[17]

Notable professional service:

  • Robert Wood Johnson 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 250 peer-reviewed journal articles.


  1. "Mary-Claire King", in Lisa Young, A to Z of Women in Science and Math, p.153.
  2. Mary-Claire King Lab webpage at the University of Washington
  3. Mary-Claire King in Google Scholar
  4. 4.0 4.1 Mary-Claire King, Protein polymorphisms in chimpanzee and human evolution, Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Berkeley (1973).
  5. King, M.; Wilson, A. (1975). "Evolution at two levels in humans and chimpanzees". Science. 188 (4184): 107–116. doi:10.1126/science.1090005. PMID 1090005.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Gilad, Y.; Oshlack, A.; Smyth, G. K.; Speed, T. P.; White, K. P. (2006). "Expression profiling in primates reveals a rapid evolution of human transcription factors". Nature. 440 (7081): 242–245. doi:10.1038/nature04559. PMID 16525476.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Hall, J.; Lee, M.; Newman, B.; Morrow, J.; Anderson, L.; Huey, B.; King, M. (1990). "Linkage of early-onset familial breast cancer to chromosome 17q21". Science. 250 (4988): 1684–1689. doi:10.1126/science.2270482. PMID 2270482.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>; see also "Inventor of the Week", MIT, Oct. 1998, for update and overview of importance of work.
  8. Interview with King, Breast Cancer Research Foundation website
  9. See "Using genetics for human rights", The Online Daily of the University of Washington (1997).
  10. 10.0 10.1 Natalie Angier, "Mary-Claire King: Quest for Genes and Lost Children" ("Scientist at Work series) New York Times, April 27, 1993.
  11. Inventor of the Week, MIT.
  12. "The Scientist: Mary-Claire King", 18(5):16 (2004).
  13. See King, "The Biggest Obstacle Is How to Have Enough Hours in the Day", The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 10, 2005
  14. Schubert, C. (2003). "Profile: Mary-Claire King". Nature Medicine. 9 (6): 633–633. doi:10.1038/nm0603-633. PMID 12778148.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "The Gene Factor: Mary-Claire King, Prevention Pioneer", Pharmaceutical Achievers.
  16. "Putting the Puzzle Together", Sept. 1996.
  17. Biography, Breast Cancer Research Foundation
  18. Missing or empty |title= (help); External link in |website= (help); Missing or empty |url= (help); |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Paul-Ehrlich-Preis für Genetikerin King, March 14, 2003.
  20. Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, Heineken Prizes
  21. Eurekalert Press Release, 2006 Aug.
  22. Peter Gruber Foundation Genetics News, 2004 Press Release; Peter Gruber Foundation biography.
  23. Harvard Public Health NOW, June 13, 2003.

External links