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

By Ruth Moore | Go to book overview

XI
MULLER: MUTATIONS AND THE NEW

ALL RESEARCH ROADS converged on the chromosome and the hereditary material of which it was made. Unquestionably the little strings of matter were the bearers of heredity. They were the only physical substance of the parent handed down to the offspring, the veritable link that had been passed along from generation to generation since the beginning of life. In every cell of every living thing lay a part of the past.

But what was this material and what were the units--the genes--which Morgan's work indicated were strung out along its length? How could an all but invisible bit of matter carry all the specifications for making living things what they are? Somehow this minute fleck of matter had to be studied.

The problem was how. How could the hereditary material itself, as distinct from its behavior, be measured and analyzed? At the time there was no way to separate a "gene" as such, or to photograph its depths or structure. Almost the only way in was to try to study the changes that occurred at points in the chromosome, in the genes. Here was one clue as to what might be going on inside. Mutations might tell something about the nature and the organization of the invisible hereditary units.

The difficulty was that mutations were exceedingly rare. Morgan had worked for a year and bred millions of flies before the fly with the white eyes turned up in his cultures. Perhaps not once in a million replications did a gene change, and then perhaps more generations were necessary for the change to become visible in the form of a white eye or an altered wing or some other differing characteristic. If science could find a way

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