The Hershey–Chase experiments were a series of experiments conducted in 1952 by Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase, confirming that DNA was the genetic material, which had first been demonstrated in the 1944 Avery–MacLeod–McCarty experiment. While DNA had been known to biologists since 1869, most assumed at the time that proteins carried the information for inheritance.
Hershey and Chase conducted their experiments on the T2 phage, a virus whose structure had recently been shown by electron microscopy.The phage consists of a protein shell containing its genetic material. The phage infects a bacterium by attaching to its outer membrane and injecting its genetic material and leaving its empty shell attached to the bacterium.
In their first set of experiments, Hershey and Chase labeled the DNA of phages with radioactive Phosphorus-32 (the element phosphorus is present in DNA but not present in any of the 20 amino acids from which proteins are made). They allowed the phages to infect E. coli, and through several elegant experiments were able to observe the transfer of P32 labeled phage DNA into the cytoplasm of the bacterium.
In their second set of experiments, they labeled the phages with radioactive Sulfur-35 (Sulfur is present in the amino acids cysteine and methionine, but not in DNA). Following infection of E. coli they then sheared the viral protein shells off of infected cells using a high-speed blender and separated the cells and viral coats by using a centrifuge. After separation, the radioactive S35 tracer was observed in the protein shells, but not in the infected bacteria, supporting the hypothesis that the genetic material which infects the bacteria was DNA and not protein.
Hershey shared the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his “discoveries concerning the genetic structure of viruses.”
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