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Reconceiving the Gene

Reconceiving the Gene: Seymour Benzer's Adventures in Phage Genetics

Frederic Lawrence Holmes
Edited by William C. Summers
Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Reconceiving the Gene
    Book Description:

    This book relates how, between 1954 and 1961, the biologist Seymour Benzer mapped the fine structure of the rII region of the genome of the bacterial virus known as phage T4. Benzer's accomplishments are widely recognized as a tipping point in mid-twentieth-century molecular biology when the nature of the gene was recast in molecular terms. More often than any other individual, he is considered to have led geneticists from the classical gene into the molecular age.Drawing on Benzer's remarkably complete record of his experiments, his correspondence, and published sources, this book reconstructs how the former physicist initiated his work in phage biology and achieved his landmark investigation. The account of Benzer's creativity as a researcher is a fascinating story that also reveals intriguing aspects common to the scientific enterprise.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12970-0
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
    William C. Summers
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Author’s Note
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Chapter One Classical Mendelian Genetics
    (pp. 1-28)

    The formation of genetics during the first decades of the twentieth century, following the rediscovery of the long-overlooked paper by Gregor Mendel that provided its fundamental principles, has been the subject of many historical accounts.¹ In this chapter I do not attempt to recapitulate this complex history but only draw attention to certain features of its development that were particularly relevant to what was viewed by mid-century as ‘‘classical genetics.’’

    Mendel explained the results of his experiments on the hybridization of pea plants by assuming the presence in the germ cells ofAnlagenthat give life to the individuals that...

  7. Chapter Two Genetics and the Phage Biologists
    (pp. 29-74)

    In an address delivered to a session on physics at the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R in March 1936, Hermann Muller made a passionate plea to physicists to ‘‘interest themselves more actively’’ in the problems surrounding the ‘‘tiny particles of heredity—the genes—[in which] the chief secrets of living matter as distinguished from lifeless are contained.’’ He focused on three of these problems: the property of ‘‘specific auto-attraction’’ that must somehow exist between corresponding genes on the gene chain—a force that must be unlike the ordinary forces of adsorption known to physicists; the property of ‘‘auto-synthesis’’ that...

  8. Chapter Three The Physicist Becomes a Phage Biologist
    (pp. 75-121)

    Seymour Benzer was born in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, in 1921, to Polish Jewish immigrants who worked in the needle trades. Seymour was their third child and only son. His sisters were ten and eight years older than he, and a third sister was born ten years after he was. His father often brought bundles of clothes home for his mother to finish on her sewing machine, and Seymour sometimes had to deliver the clothes on the subway. As the only boy in the family, however, he was favored and given much freedom to pursue his own interests and hobbies.¹

    Like many...

  9. Chapter Four To Paris and Back
    (pp. 122-145)

    At the beginning of August 1951, the Benzer family embarked on the long sea voyage from New York to Paris. For most of the nine days spent aboard the ship they were seasick. They arrived in Paris on August 13, a day that turned out to be a semi-holiday (the Feast of the Assumption), and none of Benzer’s contacts at the Institut Pasteur was present. He went to the Fulbright office, where he learned that housing was in very short supply, but there was one listing for an apartment belonging to a well-known American sculptress and her husband. The apartment...

  10. Chapter Five Teaching and Research at Purdue
    (pp. 146-178)

    When Benzer returned to Purdue in September 1952, the Biophysics Laboratory had been completed. Supported jointly by the Departments of Physics and of Biological Sciences, the new enterprise was intended to apply ‘‘the point of view of the physicist to the understanding of basic problems in biology.’’ Such programs were founded in other American universities during this period as part of a general movement whose aim was to apply the concepts and methods of physics to biology. There was, however, no widespread agreement about the domain of biophysics, and the subjects studied differed according to the interests of the particular...

  11. Chapter Six Entering the rII Region
    (pp. 179-221)

    In 1965 Benzer gave a compelling account of the chance conjunction of events that had led him nine years earlier to take up his project to map the genome of the bacteriophage T2. The seminar on the size of the gene for which he had read Pontecorvo’s paper (see Chapter 5) had already made him aware of the need for high-resolution mapping to distinguish among the several definitions of the gene. Then, as he related the story:

    I had started out to attempt the Hershey-Chase experiment with genetic markers, to show sequential injection of the various parts of the phage...

  12. Chapter Seven Crossing into the Fine Structure
    (pp. 222-268)

    Mapping the r mutants onto the region occupied between Doermann’s r47 and r51 was not a one-step conversion of recombination frequencies into distances along a linear diagram but a process of successive approximations. Before constructing a complete diagram, Benzer sketched a partial one when he had done only the crosses of r47 and of his II with each of the other seven. The diagram showed the distances of II between r47, and r51 and the distance between II and V. The latter, which he had placed to the left and to the right of r51 in his first map of...

  13. Chapter Eight Is Gene a Dirty Word?
    (pp. 269-298)

    While discarding the rewritten discussion with which Delbrück supplied him, Benzer replied tactfully, ‘‘Your comments and suggestions on the manuscript are apt and much appreciated, and I am working on the revisions.’’ Moreover, he warmly welcomed the idea of coming to Caltech to discuss the paper further. ‘‘I am sorely tempted by your invitation to (literally) ‘fly off’ to Pasadena, but cannot get away until after March 25. Will the invitation hold until then? I propose March 28 and would like to stay for a longish week, if that is agreeable to you.’’¹ Delbrück accommodatingly arranged matters to fit Benzer’s...

  14. Chapter Nine The Survival of the “Gene”
    (pp. 299-302)

    Benzer was not alone in these years in his quest to subdivide the genetic material into its finer subunits. His nearest counterparts, Streisinger and Franklin, did not carry their projects through to publication, but others were working on different organisms to the same general end. In 1955 Milislav Demerec was using autotrophic mutants of the bacteriumSalmonella typhimuriumto examine the ‘‘structure and organization of gene loci.’’ Taking advantage of ‘‘transduction’’—the process in which bacteriophage grown in one bacterial culture can carry a small fragment of the bacterial chromosome into the bacteria they subsequently infect—to create heterozygote regions...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 303-330)
  16. Index
    (pp. 331-334)