The Coil of Life: The Story of the Great Discoveries in the Life Sciences

By Ruth Moore | Go to book overview

VIII
ROUX AND DRIESCH: HALVES AND WHOLES

When I look at a dividing cell I feel as an astronomer might do if he beheld the formation of a double star: that an original act of creation is taking place before me.

WILLIAM BATESON

THE EGG is a nearly spherical object, simple and elegant of line. It could not bear less resemblance to the complex, leggy, heady, articulated beings from which it comes, or to the beings like them to which it will give rise. How this single cell and the single cell that fertilizes it can divide and redivide and multiply until their bulk is increased astronomically staggers the imagination. Even more marvelous is the organization of this multitude of cells. With what appears to be inevitability they arrange themselves into tissues and organs, and the tissues and organs into moving, functioning, intelligent beings. What is more, this feat of organization is accomplished with a co-ordination of timing and sequence which is nearly unfailing. No work of man even approaches this miracle of development, a miracle that springs from the roundish little egg. To paraphrase: never did so much come from so little.

As young Wilhelm Roux ( 1850-1924) studied medicine at Jena, he became fascinated by this miracle of development. The making of the heart, the skin, the brain, the whole complex individual from one cell no bigger than the point of a pin did indeed seem beyond physical law. Yet, if urea could be compounded in the laboratory as Wohler had done, if fermentation was a chemical action as Buchner had shown, and if even proteins were chemical compounds, Roux felt that this

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