Margarita Salas Falgueras, Spain’s leading female scientist has died just before her 81st birthday

THE 80-year-old from Asturias in northern Spain, led not only in the scientific field but also as a pioneering female role model. Born during the Franquist era in Spain, she defied the traditional role of women to become one of the leading molecular biologists in Spain.

Spanish science minister Pedro Duque, a former astronaut, offered the following tribute:

“Margarita Salas has left us, one of the most brilliant Spanish scientists in history. A pioneering woman, key in the great advances of biochemistry and molecular biology that have led to the progress of humanity. A leader who will be missed so much,”

Just five months ago Salas was honoured with the presitigious life time achievement European Inventor Award.

Margarita started her career in the US-based laboratory of Nobel-prize winner Severo Ochoa. She returned to her native Spain in 1967 to establish the country’s first research group in the field of molecular genetics.

Despite financial limitations and lingering gender prejudice, Salas built her team into a world class and highly profitable public research centre.

Salas invented a faster, simpler and more reliable way to replicate trace amounts of DNA into quantities large enough for full genomic testing. Her invention based on phi29 DNA polymerase is now used widely in oncology, forensics and archaeology.

The technique invented is used in medical research to study microbes that cannot be cultured in the laboratory. It has shed light on the earliest stages of embryonic development and allows oncologists to zoom in on small sub-populations of cells that could give rise to tumours.

Patents filed by Salas have led to the commercialisation of user-friendly DNA-amplification kits. She filed her initial patent through the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and it remains the most profitable patent ever filed by the CSIC. It accounted for more than half the organisation’s royalties between 2003 and 2009, returning millions in investment to publicly funded research.

In addition to her role as a scientific pioneer, she was also a dedicated lecturer, having taught molecular biology at Madrid’s Complutense University for 24 years.

 

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Written by

Cristina Hodgson

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