Lederberg, 83, died of complications from congestive heart failure and pneumonia, family members said.
She and her former husband, Joshua Lederberg, were teammates who shared a Nobel Prize in 1958 for genetic research.
In the early 1950s while experimenting with E. coli bacteria, Esther Lederberg discovered a previously unreported virus, which she named lambda phage, infecting but not immediately harming the bacteria, The New York Times said Friday. She found that the stealth virus was transmitted through bacterial matings and ordinary genetic material, and could remain dormant or emerge later to destroy the host.
These findings helped explain how phages pass between generations of bacteria and served as a model when studying genetic inheritance in complex viruses.
Lederberg, who died Nov. 11, is survived by her current husband, Matthew Simon, and a brother.