The Forgotten Father of Epigenetics

By Byrnes, W. Malcolm | American Scientist, March/April 2015 | Go to article overview

The Forgotten Father of Epigenetics


Byrnes, W. Malcolm, American Scientist


Despite the strides that have been made in recent decades to increase minorities' involvement in science, African Americans are still significantly under-represented in scientific disciplines. A 2010 survey, for instance, showed that blacks make up only 5 percent of the science and engineering workforce, even though they make up 13 percent of the US population. Yet diversity is important not only for fairness in representation; it is also critical for enhancing creativity in scientific discovery.

In his 1989 book Discovering, physiologist and author Robert RootBernstein identifies four "inputs" into the discovery process: cultural context, the established body of science, "science in the making," and the scientist himself or herself. The individual scientist, he notes, "will represent a unique mix of hereditary proclivities and environmental experiences."

The importance of cultural context in discovery is demonstrated by the contributions of Ernest Everett Just, an internationally recognized embryologist of the early 20th century who was African American. A graduate of Dartmouth College (1907) and the University of Chicago (PhD, 1916), Just was a professor at Howard University in Washington, DC. He performed research in the first part of his career at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole and later in Europe. He authored more than 70 scientific papers as well as two books, both published in 1939. One book was his magnum opus, The Biology of the Cell Surface. Known for his study of the structural changes that occur at the egg cell surface during fertilization, Just also was the first to discover that the adhesiveness of the cells of the early embryo are exquisitely dependent on cell surface properties.

In the 1930s Just put forth a bold hypothesis involving nuclear-cytoplasmic interaction to explain how the cells of the early-stage embryo participate in the developmental process. His hypothesis, which he called the "theory of genetic restriction," clashed with the gene theory that was then becoming dominant. I believe that Just's theory-his model of the developing cell-represents a microcosm of his vision of the perfect society, which, in tum, was strongly influenced by sociological concepts circulating within the African American intellectual community at the time.

Although Just's theory of genetic restriction was hotly debated among his contemporaries, it did not significantly influence the development of biology, for several likely reasons. First, the dominance of the nucleocentric view of the cell that accompanied the gene theory served to shift attention away from more cytoplasm-centered views. Second, unlike other scientists, Just did not have a cadre of students to continue his work, because as an African American he was unable to obtain a position at a research-intensive university, which would have enabled him to have a year-round research program. Instead, he worked essentially alone in the summer at Woods Hole or during trips to Europe. Third, the experimental methods that would have been required to test the theory did not exist at the time. Fourth, due in part to his outspokenness in challenging prominent biologists and his gravitation toward European biology, Just was treated as an outsider by his American counterparts. Because of this, and simply because he was African American, he was viewed as a controversial figure. This made his peers less likely to embrace (and cite) his work. As historian Kenneth Manning notes in his biography Black Apollo of Science, even though younger scientists who heard Just present his theory at the 1935 meeting of the American Society of Zoologists wrote for reprints and saw him as "one of the most creative men in zoology in the United States," they, along with everyone else, declined to take up the challenge to advance his work. As a result, his theory has lain dormant.

Just's theory has many redeeming qualities, and he was uniquely positioned to advance these ideas because he was able to see things differently than his peers. …

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