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

By Ruth Moore | Go to book overview

XII
BEADLE AND TATUM: OF MOLDS AND MEN

Two YOUNG SCIENTISTS, one from Paris and the other from Wahoo, Nebraska, were deep in a long discussion. In the laboratories at the California Institute of Technology, where both were engaged in research, and at lunch or dinner they returned again and again to the same problem: the frustrating lack of knowledge about the manner in which the hereditary materials act upon development.

Mendel and Morgan had shown very clearly how hereditary traits, our likenesses and differences, are transmitted from parent to offspring. The hereditary factors had been tracked to the chromosome, and Muller had proved that the hardy, heavily protected chromosomes and their genes could be altered by the chance hit of radiation.

But all of this only raised the new question of how this hereditary material exercises its control. How could this infinitesimal bit of matter order the structure, the shape, the physical behavior of life? How could so small a structure determine so unerringly whether two small cells are to be man or tadpole or mold?

The more the two young scientists debated the problem, the more they were convinced that the hereditary units must exert their effect through chemical action. At least this was a possibility that could be investigated. The two, Boris Ephrussi and George Wells Beadle, decided to see what they could find out about the chemical action of the gene.

At the time-- 1933--Ephrussi held a research fellowship at Caltech. The next year Beadle obtained a leave to work in

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