Margarita Salas Falgueras, 1938–2019

Tributes paid to researcher who invented pioneering DNA testing technique and championed women in science

November 21, 2019
Source: European Patent Office

A scientist who invented a faster and more reliable way to replicate traces of DNA has died.

Margarita Salas Falgueras was born in 1938 in Asturias, northern Spain. She studied at Complutense University of Madrid, where she also obtained her PhD. She then moved to the US, where she worked with the Nobel prizewinning biochemist Severo Ochoa at New York University.

After returning to Spain, she founded the country’s first research group on molecular genetics in 1967 at the Spanish National Research Council in Madrid.

There, she discovered that a bacterial virus called phi29 could create an enzyme that assembled DNA molecules much faster than alternatives and much more accurately.

She successfully isolated the enzyme and demonstrated that it also worked in human cells, leading to groundbreaking applications for DNA testing. The high accuracy of replication made it possible to obtain reliable results from small quantities of genetic material for the first time. Her invention is now widely used in oncology, forensics and archaeology.

Professor Salas was professor of molecular genetics at Complutense between 1968 and 1992 and, from 1974, professor at the Centre for Molecular Biology Severo Ochoa.

In 2000, Salas won the first-ever L’Oréal-Unesco for Women in Science Award and is recognised for working hard to raise the profile of women in science. “When I started my PhD in 1961 there were almost no women doing research in Spain,” she said in 2019. “Nowadays there are more women than men starting a PhD in our laboratories.”

In 2007, she became the first Spanish woman to become a member of the US National Academy of Sciences and in 2008 was given the title Marchioness of Canero by King Juan Carlos I.

At the age of 80, she continued to go into her lab in Madrid to work, and earlier this year she was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the European Patent Office.

“Margarita Salas is a pioneer in the field of molecular genetics and a champion for women in science…Her work has put DNA sequencing within reach of many more researchers and scientists, and paved the way for further breakthroughs in genetics,” EPO president António Campinos said at the time.

Writing on Twitter, Pedro Sánchez, acting prime minister of Spain said: “Margarita Salas leaves us. Pioneer. Inspiration for thousands of women struggling to reach the place they deserve in science”.

Professor Salas was married to fellow Spanish researcher Eladio Viñuela, a molecular biologist, who died in 1999. She died on 7 November 2019 and is survived by their daughter, Lucía Viñuela.

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