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Mary Lyon Medal

This new award, named after the distinguished geneticist Mary Lyon FRS, was established in 2015 to reward outstanding research in genetics to scientists who are in the middle of their research career. The Mary Lyon medal will be awarded annually, and the winner will be invited to present a lecture at one of the Genetics Society scientific meetings. 

Mary Frances Lyon was born in Norwich, England in 1925 to Clifford James Lyon and Louise Frances Lyon (nee Kirby). Mary received a grammar school education and recalls a set of books on wild flowers, birds and trees that she won in an essay writing competition, which sparked her interest in biology at a young age. She went on to read zoology, physiology and biochemistry at Girton College, Cambridge in 1943. At Girton, Mary was named the Sophia Adelaide Turle Scholar (1944) and received the Gertrude Gwendolen Crewdson Prize (1945). During her time at Girton, the fascinating advances in experimental embryology of the 1930's caught Mary’s attention; she was also much influenced by the writings of C. H. Waddington which included his books on genetics. It seemed to her that genes must underlie all embryological development. This was a relatively new idea at the time, genetics not even being taught as a degree subject.

Mary consequently took a course in genetics by the eminent statistician and theoretical geneticist R.A. Fisher, with whom she later started a PhD. For her PhD, Mary decided to study a balance defect in one of the mutants in Fisher’s lab. She however later moved to Douglas Falconer’s lab in Edinburgh for better facilities to complete her PhD. After obtaining a PhD, Mary was employed to study the genetic hazards of radiation by means of mutagenesis experiments with mice in a group led by T. C. Carter in Edinburgh. The work was funded by an MRC funded grant obtained by Waddington, the head of genetics department. Carter’s group eventually moved to MRC Radiobiology unit at Harwell, in Oxfordshire where Mary remained for the rest of her career. Many discoveries coming from Mary’s career were offshoots of the study of these radiation induced mutations in mice; often being investigated in her spare time. X-linked mutant genes, for example, gave mottled or dappled coats in heterozygous animals. Mary worked out that the colour patches could be produced by the action of one or other of the two X-chromosomes in female cells. She proposed the idea of X- chromosome inactivation by which early in development one of the two X-chromosomes is inactivated, which she later extended to all mammals. This hypothesis of X-inactivation is also widely referred to as lyonization after Mary. Mary’s extensive work on the t-complex, a genetic peculiarity found in wild-type mice, also came out of work on radiation. Mary also made major contributions to understanding environmental mutagenesis. Her work on effects of low dose radiation on female germ-cells mutation in mammals indicated that only a fraction of mutation is due to low dose environmental radiation.

In 1962, Mary took over as head of the genetics section of the Radiobiology unit at Harwell. Here she broadened the expertise of the unit by introducing cytogenetics, work on biochemical genetic markers and early pre- and post-implantation mouse embryo manipulation. Mouse embryo banking started at MRC Harwell under Mary’s leadership, following collaboration with David Whittingham’s laboratory in Cambridge. Today this has taken the form of FESA (Frozen Embryo and Sperm Archive) the sole public UK archiving and distribution centre for mouse strains. In 1986, Mary officially retired as the head of the Genetics Division, but continued to play an active role in the science of the unit for a very long time after. In 2004 the Medical Research Council opened a large centre at Harwell called the Mary Lyon Centre which is a national facility for mouse functional genomics, providing world-class expertise, tools and space to generate mouse models of human disease in keeping with Mary’s contribution to science.

Call for Nominations

Please note, the deadline for nominations for the 2018 Mary Lyon Medal is Friday 28th April 2017. 
Please email j.pettitt@abdn.ac.uk  for more information.


Previous Winners
2015 Prof Loeske Kruuk
2016 Dr Duncan Odom
2017 Dr Petra Hajkova