IMG_2134 sm
A spring outflow pouring into another pool. These small streams are home to rich communities of microbes.

These hot springs—often as clear as swimming pools, as though methodically poisoned to kill algae and small plants—are chocked with life. Even pools of boiling sulfuric acid have diverse communities of microbes. They drift invisibly in the crystal-clear center, down to depths of many meters. They can live without light or oxygen. Around the rims, colored bands of brown, red, yellow, and green are national borders. On one side, one kind of life thrives and repels its enemies; on the other, one of those enemies has found the tangy land of sour milk and rancid honey.

“There’s more diversity in these pools,” Everett Shock tells me, than all the macroscopic life you can see here at Yellowstone–pine trees, bison, bears, elk, shrubs, grass…all of it.”

The springs runneth over. The outflow finds the lowest point of exit from the pool and winds down the hill, where it braids with many others to form Geyser Creek. To the untrained eye, these outflows are unspectacular, compared to the pools. But Shock helps me learn to see. These outflows are rich with life and form laboratories for microbe hunters.

They present a wealth of different environments. At one spot that I’d been inclined to hop across, Shock pulled me close and made me look. Two outflows merged. One was acidic, the other basic. In a little wedge just above the confluence, was a patch of green, where photosynthetic bacteria thrived. “This boundary may represent the beginning of conditions under which photosynthesis is viable,” he said. “Looking at the bands is like going back in time.”

Two outflows merge, with a wedge of photosynthesis between them.
Two outflows merge, with a wedge of photosynthesis between them.

Here, you can often see the microbes—or at least their cities. The scientists call them “streamers.” The tiny bugs build ribbons of minerals that undulate like hair in the current. Some are pink, some green, others a nearly colorless grayish. The least pretty are some of the most interesting. Even though plenty of sunlight and oxygen is available to them, they don’t use it. They are anaerobic and draw their energy from hydrogen produced in the Earth’s mantle. I was not the first to think the colorless streamers looked like mucous; one pool particularly rich with them was called “Spent Kleenex.”

Let’s say you arrived on Earth to take samples, and you took an enormous bite out of a skyscraper—a couple hundred cubic feet, say. You load it onto your ship for analysis. Your instruments would record a lot of steel, glass, and plastic…and a small proportion of living material. Perhaps your scoop grabbed an administrator and a middle manager—no more than a few percent of the total mass of the sample. Would you taste it?

Nom nom nom.
Nom nom nom.

On an earlier field trip, apparently at a moment of boredom and certainly out of Shock’s earshot, one student pointed to some streamers and said to another, “I’ll give you a quarter if you eat one of those.” To the surprise and delight of the group, she plucked one out, blew on it a few times, and popped it into her mouth. Peals of laughter rang out through the field site. “How does it taste?” they asked, wanting to know.

“It’s flavorless,” she replied, “But it’s crunchy.”

When, several years later Shock’s group performed a chemical analysis on the streamers, they found that they contained only about two percent organic carbon. The streamer is unquestionably a product of biological processes, but almost all of the carbon in it comes from inorganic sources. It’s a mineral structure built by the community; it is their skyscraper.

What are the streamers for? The paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould was fond of pointing out the dangers of thinking that every biological structure must have a purpose, but it’s worth asking the question, judiciously. One possibility is that the streamer is simply sandy poop—not functional but merely a waste product resulting from their metabolism. The underlying geology in this region is heavily based on silica. If, for example, you needed to get rid of a lot of silica, it might stick together and remain bound up with the sticky, mucousy microbes.

Another possibility is that the streamer is a fishing net, a matrix that captures nutrients as they float past. Life and mineral could be inseparable; without their sandy sieve, the microbial community might not survive in the stream, which must feel a bit like a Himalayan peak to microbes accustomed to living in dark, toasty, anoxic pools of boiling sulfuric acid.

Streamers thus lead us to think of life as many astrobiologists do. We are all geo-biological systems. We are suffused with minerals, from the salt in our tears to the iron in our blood. The most ancient biological catalysts have metal centers, probably acquired from the surrounding rock in an undersea geothermal vent four billion years ago. Since then, ground rock and metal have cycled constantly through our bodies.

We are streamers, we are iron, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the geothermal garden.

Microbe Safari II: Geyser Creek

The Geyser Creek field of thermal pools, from a rise above.

This microbe safari is risky business. We are an hour’s bush-whacking off the trail, in the Yellowstone back-country, amid a field of geothermal pools. Most of the pools are at or near the boiling point. Some are alkaline, while others are as sour and corrosive as stomach acid. There was danger in nearly every step. The whole district is shot through with potholes, each one potentially deadly. Some are gurgle with boiling water. Some belch steam. To put a foot in one could mean vicious burns. To break the thin crust of silica and fall through would be deadly. (Someone died not far from here a month ago, straying off the boardwalk unguided. Fell into a pool. There were no remains to recover.) The place also smells like farts.


Note the dangerous shelf on the far side. Approaching from that side, the ground appears solid right up to the thin, brittle edge.

After nearly twenty years of working around geothermal springs, Professor Everett Shock has developed a remarkable eye for reading these treacherous landscapes. Holes a few inches wide could be twenty or more feet deep and indicate thin ground. A particular kind of crusty formation on one side of a pool indicates danger, although similar crusts can be perfectly safe. One rule of thumb is to keep on the grass. Typically, as one approaches a pool, the soil becomes too harsh and hot to support macroscopic plants; a small, barren rock “beach” surrounds the pool. However, in some instances, grass may grow near the water while a barren but solid patch nearby is more secure. Shock can tell the difference. Soon we had all fallen into the habit of carefully checking each step before we took it. While moving, we kept our eyes down, scanning a radius of two yards or so around us for hazards. As we moved through the landscape, the ground burbled, glugged, steamed, spewed, belched, and boiled. It looked like a world out of Star Trek. Traversing it felt like crossing a minefield.

The pay-off for a microbe-hunter here, though, is huge. In this remote bit of the park, an area the size of a couple of football fields, one can find, Shock says, “a little bit of everything.” “This pool is acid,” he said, pointing as we gazed over the hot spring field, “that one right next to it is basic. One is spitting out iron, another is bright blue.” Some are as clear and inviting as a swimming pool, others are turbid and tinted, others are “mudpots,” boiling mud-puddles meters deep. One student, Melody, is doing her thesis on them. Melody judges the value of a site by its mudpots. IMG_2125 sm

“When we started,” Shock said, “we gave the pools simple names. Pool 1, pool 2, pool 3. But we found we couldn’t keep track of which was which. So we started giving them stupid names.” By “stupid” he means silly. Some are actually quite clever. A good name is mnemonic and funny–either witty or vulgar. Today we were sampling seven pools: Jackhammer boils violently and is surrounded by loose rocks the size of footballs. Bat Pool is vaguely bat-shaped. As we approached it, it shot up a burst of gas and water. “Hello, Bat Pool,” Shock said. “It’s nice to see you too.” St. Blucia is a milky blue. Spitting Croissant is crescent-shaped and harbors great colonies of mucousy microbes. Over the years, the pH and conductivity in Spitting Croissant have fluctuated wildly. Evolutionary theory would suggest that different species would flourish under the different conditions; physiology, however, offers the possibility that Spitting Croissant microbes are selected to tolerate a wide range of conditions. One of the students is working on finding an answer. The landscape here changes year to year. Last year, Dirty Donut was in fact donut-shaped. This year, we find the water has breached one of the walls, creating a wide outflow. Corner Thing I imagine being named at the end of a long day. Finally, lording over the other pools on the hill above, is the majestic Empress Pool.

IMG_2113 sm
As inviting as a spa…but deadly.

The technician, Vince—6’4”, about 220, decked out in a flannel shirt, aviator glasses, and a broad-brim hat with a jaunty long feather in the hatband—is integral to the operation. He carries the heaviest pack, keeps track of logistics, and watches over the group. Shock calls him “Uncle Vince.” Uncle Vince also had the painstaking job of collecting dissolved gases in the water samples. As the dry, thin mountain air warmed, sleeves rolled up, shirts came unbuttoned. Uncle Vince revealed a “Led Zeppelin Tour 1977” t-shirt. When I commented on it, Shock began singing “Whole Lotta Love” in a Robert Plant falsetto, playing air guitar as he puttered around, checking on the students’ progress. “Oohh baby, I ain’t foolin’/Gonna send you, back for schoolin’/Waaaay down inside…”

The sampling itself is simple enough, but it’s a delicate task. Many pools are undercut, leaving thin, treacherous ledges around part or all of the rim. Shock ensures that the students collect from a safe distance; the scoops have six-foot handles and can be extended to twelve feet. Usually one side of a pool is determined to be the sturdiest. Then the researchers have to work out a safe path across the minefield between camp and the pool. “Do you know the way to Jackhammer?” a student may ask, though the pool is in sight, as far away as a ten-year-old can throw a stone. Frequently, the answer is “Ask Everett.”

Shock’s students and technician, men and women alike dressed in variations of Early Indiana Jones, set up a field lab in a grassy spot with a bit of shade. Each member of the team got right to work on his or her designated task. One measured temperature, pH, and conductivity. Another collected water samples, which would be divvied up for later analysis: sulfur, hydrogen, various minerals, trace metals, organic and inorganic carbon, and small organic acids such as formate and acetate, which can be “bio-signatures”—characteristic products of life. Another student collected samples of the sediment in each pool. In the muck live microbes that don’t need oxygen or food. Sometimes the students shared samples. “Is there any leftover Spitting Croissant water?” is a question that makes sense here.

A typical biology lab is like a factory. The students are lined up at benches organized into “bays,” long tables jutting out from the walls with two student stations on each side. They work independently, bantering and listening to music as they carry out their often-repetitious tasks and shuttle between their bench and the instruments around the lab. Out in the field, the students arrayed themselves into a lumpy version of the lab, tucking themselves into niches, shady ones if possible, and often with bushes or scruffy trees demarcating the boundaries. They bantered as they carried out their repetitive tasks, while some picked their way carefully out to the next pool to collect their sample. Jokes and teasing were lobbed over the bushes like playful water balloons. The group killed about an hour seeing if they could name a mythical animal for each letter of the alphabet. Impressively, they could.

Shock presided over the operation like an orchestra conductor, keeping track of and checking in on each project, cueing the entrances and exits as necessary and then glancing out over the minefield and grabbing his walkie-talkie to warn a student of a hazard and suggest a safer route. Oddly, the group settles in a kind of normalcy, everyone at his or her task, the day ticking away. It’s just like being in the lab, except if you stray by a couple of steps you could literally melt on your way to getting a drink of water.

[next: Streamers]

Microbe Safari

We were an eleven-person ant-line marching down the boardwalk, laden with oversized, overstuffed backpacks, coolers, and tiny buckets on six-foot handles. The path to Artists’ Paintpot bore left, preparing to ascend. Steam plumed out of the Earth ahead on the right. Our leader veered left and stepped off onto spongy moss and plunged into scrubby pine forest. For the next hour, we bushwhacked our way around the mountain and up the adjacent valley. We pushed through the “green blizzard,” a limb-scratching forest of young pines. We scrambled over fields of fallen and rotting logs, as though we’d wandered into an over-sized game of pick-up-sticks. We crossed a laughing, bathtub-warm mountain stream and followed it through bogs and uphill. At last, we emerged into a primordial landscape—a barren field pocked with bubbling pools, steaming potholes, and boiling mud. One would not be surprised to see a Triceratops make its way gingerly across it. As we entered the field site, steam and water blasted out of a pile of rocks, a hundred feet into the air, as if saluting. “Hello, Avalanche Geyser,” said our leader, Dr. Everett Shock. “Nice to see you, too.”

Avalanche Geyser, Yellowstone National Park
Avalanche Geyser, Yellowstone National Park

I am trying to get a handle on the origin of life. One way to do that is to study organisms and environments in our world that approximate features of that ancient one. So I tagged along with Shock, to the back country of Yellowstone National Park. Its geothermal pools and springs are among the harshest habitable conditions on the planet. But in them life indeed thrives: diverse communities of microbes that most scientists place on the shortest, deepest branches of the tree of life. From them, Shock gleans clues to how early life may have coped with similar conditions. He goes to Yellowstone every summer with his group “GEOPIG,” the Group Exploring Organic Processes in Geochemistry.” The GEOPIGs’ motto is, “The biochemistry we have is the biochemistry Earth allows.”

Barring a time machine, anyone trying to think about the origin of life has to make assumptions. Everyone has their own model, which stresses certain variables and ignores others. In recent years, something approaching consensus has emerged that life probably arose in or around an undersea geothermal vent, about four billion years ago. Such vents still exist, at sites such as Lost City, a warm alkaline vent system in the mid-Atlantic. Some researchers study Lost City itself; others make model Lost Cities in the lab (see my previous piece about my visit to the lab of Laurie Barge and Mike Russell).

Hot springs provide another point of attack. Every summer, Shock comes to Yellowstone for two weeks to gather samples from about sixty pools in remote corners of the park. One pool is basic (high pH) while a few feet away lies one that is essentially boiling sulfuric acid. Temperatures range from the forties (centigrade) to the nineties. Conductivity, sulfur, chloride, metals, organic vs. inorganic carbon, dissolved hydrogen and oxygen, amount and quality of sediment, and other factors also vary widely. All of this data goes into a database that characterizes each pool in seventy-four-dimensional space. Analyzing the samples gathered during these two weeks keeps Shock’s team busy the other fifty.

[DO NOT try this at home, kids. Even with a back-country permit, it is foolish to go poking around these pools unless you know what you’re doing. Last month, a young man wandered off-trail and fell into a Yellowstone hot springThere were no remains to recover.]

While not identical to the early Earth, Yellowstone hot springs share some qualities with what many scientists believe were life’s initial conditions. Besides being high in temperature—similar to the “warm” hydrothermal vents that many think were the cradle of life—they are rich in the elements of the “Fe-S-C-H-O-N” system; iron, sulfur, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen.

“What we’re doing is looking at the geochemical conditions that provide materials that life can take advantage of,” Shock told me, as the beautiful but deadly pools bubbled around us. “Maybe that can help us think clearly,” he said, about how some of the first organisms coped with similar environments. Life needs a carbon source, a constant source of energy, plenty of hydrogen, and important minerals such as iron, sulfur, and phosphorus. Good evidence exists that life emerged in water close to the boiling point, without free oxygen, and that it derived its energy by reducing CO2 to methane (CH4). After it became free-living, some microbes developed the ability to capture energy from sunlight rather than geothermal heat. The emergence of photosynthesis, about two billion years ago, was a huge game-changer: the oxygen that is a waste product of photosynthesis is poisonous to anaerobes. But life that could tolerate and then exploit oxygen survived the so-called Great Oxidation Event. Our modern world was off and running.

Much of this process is recapitulated in the Yellowstone pools. “There is more [genomic] diversity in these pools than in all the life you can see around us,” Shock said with an implicit sweep of the hand across the horizon. “Bison, Grizzlies, wolves, trees, grass, us,…everything.” (Indeed, one 1998 study found that none of 31 unique 16S ribosomal RNA sequences found in one pool matched that of any known organism.) Many microbes look similar under a microscope—they are the usual balls and rods and filaments. But in the 1970s, Carl Woese and George Fox showed that what used to be called the “Monera” in fact comprised two fundamentally different forms of life. Through a painstaking analysis of the RNA in ribosomes, Woese and Fox designated a new kingdom—later upgraded to a new category: domain—they called Archaea.[1] Although both a bacterium and an archaean are prokaryotic microbes, lacking a membrane-bound nucleus, they differ in the genes that encode and the proteins that compose some of life’s most ancient, fundamental structures. Among them are the various components of the ribosome itself, as well as membrane proteins key to metabolism and other cellular molecules present in some form in all organisms.

Shock’s approach, like every other in origin-of-life research, has its critics. How can you study the origin of life in an environment that’s already full of life?, some ask. How can you understand the early, oxygen-free world in pools with substantial levels of dissolved oxygen? Life has terraformed Earth almost beyond recognition. Just before the emergence of life, the Earth would have been mostly if not entirely ocean. There was little or no free oxygen, so the first life would have made its living anaerobically.

Shock doesn’t pretend that these pools and their inhabitants are identical to those at the dawn of life—he bristles at terms such as “primitive” or “living fossil.” Darwinism does not say that humans descended from chimpanzees; it says that we share a common ancestor that lived more recently than primates’ common ancestor with birds. Similarly, the microbes in Yellowstone hot springs are living very much in the present, but their lineage branched off the tree of life down close to the root. Studying them and their environments can help us understand how these deep lineages respond to particular conditions of heat, pH, mineral concentrations, and so forth, that were important in early evolution. This information can then inform models of how life’s basic biochemistry emerged.

Octopus spring, home of Thermus aquaticus.

The work would yield dividends even if it didn’t shed light on the origin of life. Our first day in Yellowstone, Shock took us to see Octopus Spring. Located just a few miles from Old Faithful, Octopus was the first pool where microbes were discovered living above the temperature at which life was thought to be sustainable, by the great microbiologist Thomas Brock, in 1966. Soon thereafter, and nearby at Mushroom Spring, Brock discovered Thermus aquaticus[2] In the early 1980s, the brilliant but eccentric chemist Kary Mullis, then working at Cetus, one of the early California biotech companies, used the DNA polymerase from T. aquaticus in developing one of the most potent tools in the history of biotechnology. Because it is adapted to high temperatures, the so-called taq (for “T. aquaticus”) polymerase was ideal for Mullis’s polymerase chain reaction, or PCR—one of the principal tools for amplifying a small sample of DNA up to billions of copies for analysis. Mullis received a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993 for the invention.

[next: the pools at Geyser Creek]

[1] For a history of Woese’s work, see Jan Sapp’s The New Foundations of Evolution (2009).

[2] Brock, T. D., & Freeze, H. (1969). Thermus aquaticus gen. n. and sp. n., a nonsporulating extreme thermophile. J Bacteriol, 98(1), 289-297. See also Brock’s “The value of basic research: discovery of Thermus aquaticus and other extreme thermophiles” (1997).

Bison trouble

Just returned from a trip to Yellowstone National Park, where I tagged along with scientists as they bushwhacked into the back country to study geothermal pools and their microbial communities. It’s dangerous work; one of the hazards is hiking into a remote site, only to find that it’s overrun with bison. Or, maybe one is simply walking up the road in front of you, holding up traffic.

What can hot springs tell us about the origin of life? Stay tuned to find out…

[next: Microbe Safari]20160722_093857-1 20160722_094050

Wait, there’s a fly in my soup

My new piece in Nautilus Magazine is up. It’s on some exciting research going on at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, on the origin of life. Most of us grew up with the “primordial soup.” Forget all that–hydrothermal vents are where it’s at. No one knows how life really started, of course, but this theory is pretty persuasive, because it obeys one of the central laws of the universe: entropy, the tendency for energy to go “downhill.” Take a look. 

Also, Nautilus Editor-in-Chief Michael Segal did an interview with me that’s now online. It’s a wide-ranging conversation, in which we talked about the history of science as a discipline, women in science, the Nobel Prize, and more. And it’s broken into nice, bite-sized pieces, perfect for brief lunch breaks and short attention spans.


Golden opportunity

The fabled Karolinska Institutet (KI). To anyone involved with science in the last century or so, that name springs to the mind’s eye plated with the gold of the Nobel Prize. It conjures images of elegant, wealthy Stockholm, a supermodel of a city: cold to the touch, remote, yet gifted with such stunning beauty, elegance, and wealth that it almost seems unfair, hoarded. Is has the glamor and pomp of royalty, the self-confidence (and cost of living) of New York, yet the cozy social democracy that provides reliable, clean public transportation and schools.

The KI is Stockholm’s crown jewel. Every December, Nobel week transforms almost the entire city into an opulent, charming celebration of science. Historians of science know that the curtain before the prize archives moves slowly forward, revealing the nominations and evaluations of individual laureates fifty years after the prize is awarded. The Chemistry and Physics prize archives are maintained at and administered by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The Physiology or Medicine archives and prize, however, are administered by and housed at the Nobel Forum, a separate entity on the Karolinska campus. Alfred Nobel constructed an administrative architecture designed to maintain the integrity of his prizes, but the result is Byzantine.

Like the Rockefeller University or the PhD program at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the Karolinska is all science. Almost. They do have a small staff of trained, credentialed historians, who work at the Hagströmer Medico-Historical Library, a medium-sized yet rich collection—larger than Johns Hopkins now, yet much smaller than London’s Wellcome Library)—yet rich collection that focuses on works from the sixteenth through the early nineteenth centuries. Located in a nineteenth century building that was, until recently, a courthouse. The facilities are solid with stone, warmed with wood, and softened by thick rugs.

In May, I had the great fortune to both work in the Nobel Forum archive and to be a guest at the Hagströmer Library. Both were thanks to the effort, persistence, and generosity of Eva Åhren a historian of science and medicine and now the head of the Unit for Medical History and Heritage, which includes the library and also houses a number of scholars in medical history,

The old courtroom at the Hagströmer Library

I first gave the Hagströmer Lecture, a public talk, sponsored by the Friends of the Hagströmer Library, to showcase the value of historical studies of science and demonstrate their relationship to both current science and current events. My lecture, based on my last book, was titled “From medical genetics to genomic medicine.” The main argument is that a medical-eugenic thread runs through Progressive-era eugenics all the way through the birth of medical genetics and the emergence of modern personalized genomic medicine. Thus, the “old, bad eugenics” was less hostile to medicine than scholars have thought—and contemporary medical genetics and genomics have a stronger connection to human population improvement than most of us are comfortable acknowledging. I’ve never seen much intellectual value in making people comfortable.

The lecture took place in what is certainly the most beautiful venue in which I have ever given a talk. It was in the former main courtroom, built on a circular plan, now lined with old books, and lit by a vast picture window that admitted the long Swedish evening throughout the lecture and the following reception.

Judging from the audience and the questions, we got the attention of the Karolinska scientists and some of the intellectual public of Stockholm. After the lecture, we had a luxuriously long question-and-answer period, in which scientists and laypeople alike peppered me with thoughtful questions on everything from the history of European eugenics to CRISPR and the possibility of designer babies. Near the end, Eva and I had a fun one-on-one conversation—a sort of scholarly stand-up routine—about the value and the need for historical studies of science. My argument, as regular readers will know, is that the more dominant science becomes in our culture, the more we need historians to help interpret it. The sciences and the humanities are not—or should not be—in competition. It’s more like human evolution: the better your fine motor skills become, the more valuable it is to have a well-developed prefrontal cortex to aid in planning, strategizing, choosing future options.

Dumanski and me
Ms Dumanski and me, at the podium where they announce the prize. You see? She’s actually very nice!

Having sung, I then had my scholar’s supper: Eva was pivotal in arranging for me to work in the Nobel Forum archives. The entire Physiology or Medicine prize, from sending out the nomination forms to organizing and hosting the meetings of the Nobel Committee, to arranging the banquet is done by three full-time staff. There is no trained archivist, even part-time. The administrator Ann-Marie Dumanski is gatekeeper to the archive and the Nobel Forum. By necessity, one of her principal jobs is to keep out the kooks and riff-raff. Not even my Johns Hopkins and Library of Congress affiliations satisfied her. For me to gain access, we had to persuade her that I was not a loony.


The fierce Ms Dumanski was in a good mood. Indeed, she was warm, welcoming, even chatty. Before handing over the documents I had requested, she regaled us with stories from her years there. The Nobel Prize is not the richest prize in science, but, thanks in large measure to Marie Curie, who won it twice (in 1903 and 1911) it is the most famous and the most prestigious. Some people will do almost anything to get one. They forge nominations. They show up at the front door with their inventions, saying, “I can haz Nobel Prize?” One man mailed them a generic silver trophy, on which he had had engraved:

Nobel Peace Prize

Nature             Science

Awarded to [his name]

The cover letter simply asked that they return the cup to his address, registered mail. That way, he could say, truthfully, that he had received a Nobel prize from the Karolinska Institute! Ms Dumanski said, “That cup will never leave this building!” I began to understand why she needs to be so protective.

Nobel table
Where the Knights of the Nobel (in Physiology or Medicine) congregate

The documents themselves were rich and fascinating. I was looking at the prize for the double helix, to James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins in 1962. I received every nomination they received (which spanned 1960, 1961, and 1962), as well as some of the evaluations conducted by members of the Nobel committee. You will have to wait for the book for all the details, but the story behind this prize is a good deal more complicated than the histories thus far have told. Maurice Wilkins has a much more interesting role than has been acknowledged, as does Laurence Bragg, the director of the Cavendish Institute, where Watson and Crick (but not Wilkins) worked. This in turn has implications for the social history of DNA, such as Watson’s treatment of Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin in his best-selling book, The Double Helix. Looking at the nominations, one would have expected Watson and Crick to win the prize in Chemistry, not Physiology or Medicine. Nearly all their nominations were in Chemistry—and most did not include Wilkins. But Wilkins had a strong partisan on the Nobel committee, and Bragg and Arne Tiselius (the head of the committee) played a good deal of politics. It is not a coincidence that the Chemistry prize went to two other Cavendish scientists who worked with X-ray crystallography: Max Perutz and John Kendrew. It was a red-letter day for X-ray work, for the Cavendish, and for Bragg.In all, it was an exhilarating trip.

Linnaeus’s house

I haven’t even mentioned the jaunt up to Uppsala before Stockholm, in which I stayed next to Linnaeus’s garden, gave another talk, on DNA, to the history of science colloquium, and saw some of the sights of this charming old university town. These events were organized by another good friend and colleague, Maria Björkman. Maria also did me the indispensable favor of arranging for a graduate student, Felicia Edvardsson, to assist me by translating the Swedish evaluations.
I’ll admit, there was a bit of glamor to the trip. At the Hagströmer, I felt a slightly embarrassing surge of pride as I came onstage via the small back door through which the judge once entered the courtroom from his chambers. At the Nobel Forum, Ms Dumanski allowed me to sit at the seven-meter-diameter table, carved from a single piece of wood, where the Nobel committee deliberates the prizes, and let me stand at the podium where the prize is announced every October. We took a ferry that entered Stockholm harbor—for centuries, the primary way one arrived in Stockholm—with its grandly imposing buildings on full display. These moments are folded now into my life’s narrative, among the colorful stories with which one can bore one’s grandchildren.

Uppsala cathedral makes you believe in *something.*

Most important and valuable, though, were the opportunities to be a real historian: tracking down and poring over difficult-to-obtain documents; discussing both history and the value of history with scientists and the public; and spending time with generous and intelligent colleagues who are also friends.

This was not “collegiality,” the canned concept, often paired with “interdisciplinarity,” that is rife in university mission plans and which largely stands for not pissing anyone off. My experience in Sweden, however, was collegiality without quotation marks. It was the real deal: the genuine mutual affection, the shared joy of working with ideas, books, manuscripts, and past actors, the dedication to humanistic values that is eroding so quickly in today’s neoliberal university.

One can still find pockets of true collegiality. When we do find it, we need to enjoy every second.

The Whig interpretation of the gene

I have an essay in the June issue of The Atlantic, out online now and at your favorite magazine dealer or airport in a week or so.

It’s an essay review centered around Siddhartha Mukherjee’s newest book, The Gene. The book is part history of genetics and part discussion of current genetic science and medicine. Scientists don’t seem to like the latter too well. An article, based on the book, that appeared in the New Yorker earlier this spring, is receiving a great deal of criticism from the scientific community. They say that the piece badly misrepresents the mechanisms of epigenetics.

I take him to task on his history. I use the book as the base for a discussion of “Whig history” and why it is so dangerous when writing about science. Whig history, crudely, is writing about the past from the perspective of history’s winners; it is history as a justification of the present.

Good, critical history of science is vital to doing good science on a community scale. Only when we understand that “the” gene is a human concept that describes a bit of biology in a particularly productive way, can we harness the full power of genetic knowledge for good.

Take a look!


Assessing the ethics of CRISPR

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has issued an open call for evidence to inform its examination of ethical issues arising in relation to genome editing. “Submission of evidence” is defined broadly, and includes opinions, reflections, and suggestions. No flames or trolls though, obviously.

The deadline to respond is Monday, 2/1, it’s recommended that it’s roughly 2000 words if submitted in writing, and it needs to be accompanied by this form:

The Council has posed a number of questions pertaining to human biomedical applications. The Center for Genetics and Society is composing a response and has shared with me this distilled guide to the Council’s questions. If any of you are inclined to make your voice heard on one of the most prominent biotechnical issues today, I encourage you to use this guide in drafting your own submission.

General Questions:

  • Information: references, especially recent or unpublished information & current or planned research or applications; other sources of information that we should consult?
  • Opinion: What are the rates and direction of travel, likely applications and timescales? What is on the scientific horizon and what is (currently) science fiction?
  • Insight:
    • What are the relevant perspectives and the issues they foreground?
    • Are any perspectives unfairly marginalised?
    • How are different actions and outcomes valued, and on what basis?
    • Using what frames of reference and systems of values might we understand and respond to genome editing?
  • Evaluation:
    • What are the potential benefits and to whom do those benefits accrue?
    • What are the potential risks and adverse effects, and how are those risks and effects likely to be distributed?
    • How are we to identify and evaluate the scale and significance of those benefits and risks in relation to each other?

Specific Questions:

CRISPR & the Genome: the BioTechnological Continuum

  • Is CRISPR transformative or disruptive of the field of genetic engineering? Is it continuous? Should it be treated separately? What is its distinctive significance?
  • Is the Human Genome categorically different or special in ways that make intervening into it different from other ways of manipulating nature (e.g. selective breeding of plants, animals)?

Duties Owed & Rights

  • What obligations do scientists developing genome editing technologies owe to society?
  • What freedoms does/should society owe/allow to scientists?
  • What obligations do governments owe to society to ensure “safe” science or shape R+D?


  • What conventional moral principles does genome editing challenge?
  • What moral or legal frameworks are necessary or desirable to ensure adherence to moral principles?
  • What are the issues of greatest moral concern raised by genome editing?

Justice & Access

  • What is the proper context in which to evaluate the pursuit of high tech strategies and high ambition clinical objectives in relation to possible alternatives and opportunity costs?
  • Are the benefits and costs of treatment likely to be distributed equitably? How would genome editing differentially affect vulnerable or marginalised groups?

Evaluation Frameworks

  • Biomedical Apps at Issue: Germline Intervention, Gene Therapy & Xenotransplantation
  • In translating research into treatment, does genome editing raise any special considerations (such as: assessment, risk management, who should assess safety and accessibility)?
  • In setting policy for research and applications, who should lead and who should be involved? Different than other experimental or reproductive biomedicines?
  • What are the significant decisions that need to be taken before therapeutic use of (somatic or germline) genome editing may be contemplated and who should have the responsibility for those decisions?
  • Who is framing the global debate and what is the importance attached to global consensus?





Criticism of Lander reaches mainstream media

Sometimes the Whigs get called on the carpet. Carolyn Johnson summarized the kerfluffle over Lander’s history of CRISPR in today’s Washington Post. “The tweetstorm erupted,” she writes,

when the leader of an institution vying for control of the technology published a lengthy historical account of CRISPR in a top scientific journal, an account that one critic (who happens to work at the opposing institution) described as erroneous “propaganda.”

To critics, the big problem is that “Heroes of CRISPR” is a history told by a person with a dog in the fight over who created it. The author, Eric Lander, is head of the Broad Institute, a Harvard- and MIT-affiliated research institution that is now in an all-out patent battle against the University of California, Berkeley, with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line.

To put this in perspective for non-scientists, Lander is a powerful voice in the field — a former leader of the human genome project, a co-chair of the committee that advises President Obama on science and technology matters, and a charismatic communicator who has turned his institution from a start-up to a massive research heavyweight over a decade. In other words, he is influential and people read his work, including this paper.

Whig history is all about who gets to control a historical narrative. For to some extent, it is to the one who controls the history to whom go the spoils—in this case, potentially a winner-take-all patent that could be worth billions, as well as lucrative and glorious prizes, awards, and honors. Nominators for those prizes will write their nominations with a narrative in their minds. Whatever becomes crystallized as “the” history will invariably shape how credit is attributed. I have watched people “campaign” for Nobels and then win them.

I find it impossible to avoid reading Lander’s seemingly generous history of CRISPR as a canny attempt to strip credit from the Broad Institute’s principal competitors, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier. It seems inconceivable that the fact that it ran in Cell just days before a judge filed an interference (conflict between two patents) between the Broad’s Feng Zhang and Doudna/Charpentier is mere coincidence.

It would be nice to think that those of us who howled at Lander’s history ran a little interference of our own. Once again, credit is due to Michael Eisen for bringing my attention to the matter, and thanks to everyone else who also cried “Foul!”

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