Jacqueline Barton probes DNA by shooting electrons through it. Using custom-built molecules to direct these electrical currents, she can locate genes, see how they are arranged, and scan them for damage.

Barton hopes that these techniques will lead to new ways to diagnose diseases and treat them through DNA repair. To further this end she cofounded GeneOhm Sciences in 2001, which became part of Becton, Dickinson and Company in 2006.

A Passion for Chemistry

Barton was born in 1952 and raised in New York City. Her father was a State Supreme Court justice, and her mother was a Belgian Jew who escaped to England ahead of Hitler’s invading army and then immigrated to the United States. Barton did not study chemistry in high school since it was not offered at her girls’ preparatory school. After entering Barnard College of Columbia University, she took her first chemistry class and lab. She loved the subject and decided to make it her career.

The 2015 Heritage Day medalists: Phillip Sharp, Abdulaziz Al-Zamil, and Jacqueline Barton, who won the AIC Gold Medal.
The 2015 Heritage Day medalists: Phillip Sharp, Abdulaziz Al-Zamil, and Jacqueline Barton, who won the AIC Gold Medal.

Barton stayed at Columbia and earned her PhD in inorganic chemistry, then worked at Bell Labs and taught at Hunter College, City University of New York, before returning to Columbia as a professor. Later she took a position at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena.

During her career as an educator and researcher Barton has trained more than 100 graduate and postdoctoral students, about half of whom moved into academic positions. She is currently the John G. Kirkwood and Arthur A. Noyes Professor in the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Caltech.

Studying DNA’s Electrical Conductivity

Barton first became interested in DNA during graduate school. She has since spent her career studying the electrical conductivity of DNA. She was among the first to demonstrate this strange property, and no one knows whether it helps DNA with its job of carrying genetic information. Barton is hoping to find answers to this question.

Barton has also shown that certain damaged DNA molecules do not conduct electricity. Since damaged DNA can cause many kinds of cancer, she hopes that her discovery will eventually help doctors detect damaged DNA before cancer results. In addition Barton has investigated how some metal compounds (called “complexes”) interact with DNA molecules. Evidence suggests that metal complexes can be used to repair damaged DNA.


Among her many honors Barton received the National Medal of Science in 2010 from President Barack Obama and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2002.

She was awarded the American Institute of Chemists Gold Medal in 2015 and was the Ullyot Public Affairs Lecturer in 2002, giving a talk titled “DNA: A Different Perspective.” 

Featured image: Jacqueline Barton. © Bob Paz.


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