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Mar. 03, 2009

The History of Life by Design

by Guest Blogger

By Nikki Saint Bautista

"We're going to talk about intelligent design," Luis Campos opened his talk about "Genetic Engineering from the Experimental Garden to Synthetic Biology" at the at the CUNY Graduate Center Wednesday evening. "No, not the intelligent design you often hear about in the news, but life by design."

The talk was put together by the Liberal Studies Program of the Graduate Center, City University of New York, the Metropolitan New York Section of the History of Science Society, and the Section for History and Philosophy of Science and Technology of the New York Academy of Sciences.

Luis Campos, historian at Drew University, gave a historical perspective of genetics in what he calls the “long 20th century.” In the early 20th century, there was a focus on breeding for the best traits. From the middle of the century to today, interest in genetics shifted to creating life. Although Campos does not go into the ethics or implications of engineering life, his lecture frames the historical context for controversial genetics.

Campos started by tipping his hat to the birthday boy of the year, Charles Darwin, who was out of fashion in 1900. Darwin established a theory for the survival of the fittest, but he did not have a theory for the “arrival of the fittest,” as Campos would say. Many investigators at this time looked for another way to explain heredity, for example by a divine creator on one hand.

“Plant Breeding is like Architecture”
On the other hand, there was botanist named Luther Burbank (1848-1926) who published “New Creations in Fruits and Flowers” in June 1893. Burbank produced new varieties of plants and fruits including the Russet Burbank potatoes used for McDonald’s fries today and was used in 1871 to help combat Ireland’s potato famine. This Massachusetts native was inducted to the Inventor Hall of fame in 1986. His bio reads, “His over 800 new plant varieties have been used around the world to increase the food supply.”

However, Burbank’s use of the words “creating new plants” left many other people uneasy. A priest was going to give a sermon on the topic of “new creations” and invited Burbank to a front row seat where he was “forced to listen for three quarters of an hour,” after which, he was vilified some more by the churchgoers. Burbank referenced many different dictionaries to seek the proper use of the term “creator” and was confident that he was, indeed, using it quite accurately. His plant creations were patented posthumously.

“Evolution Must Become an Experimental Science”
Campos then moved on to talk about Hugo de Vries (1848-1935), who created a mutation theory of evolution. Darwin explained evolution as a process of graduated equilibrium in which changes occur slowly over a long period of time. De Vries’ research in “Mutation Theory” added to Mendel’s laws of heredity and Darwin’s evolution by claiming that some changes may happen in bursts, also known as punctuated equilibrium. Organisms might mutate via the use of radiation de Vries concluded.

A.M. van Harten wrote in his book “ Mutation Breeding:”

“The word ‘mutation’ was coined by de Vries for sudden genetic changes, ‘leaps’, ‘shocks’ or ‘saltations’. It may be interesting to mention that the term ‘mutation’ had been used before in different ways, for instance in the seventeenth century to indicate changes in the life cycle of insects and in the nineteenth century by palaeontologists for clear abnormalities in fossils.”

“What was once called a monstrous form is now ‘mutant’,” Campos summarized before he moved on to Charles Davenport, a major proponent of American eugenics.

From Garden to Man...


Dr. Daniel Trembly MacDougal (1865-1958) was the director of the Department of Botanical Research of the Carnegie Institution in 1906. In his “New Wonders of Science in Dealing with Plants” he concluded that man might be able to change the form and color of flowers. “By injecting into the ovary osmotic regents and solutions of stimulation mineral salts he could cause changes in the egg cells of a plant before fertilization so that the altered eggs would give rise to a new form of species,” wrote the New York Times in 1906.

Curious about human genes and fitness, Charles Davenport (1866-1944) became director of Long Island’s Cold Spring Harbor Station for Evolution in 1904. Davenport determined to prove, not only the heredity of phenotypes, but also the heredity of character. Davenport published “Heredity in Relation to Eugenics” in 1911, which ignored social philosophy and the role of environment on the individual. Sadly, Davenport’s eugenics was a major influence on the Holocaust. Perhaps, this is why, and rightly so, there would always be a controversy about how to proceed with genetic research.

...But Don’t Forget the Animals!


A year later in 1912, Jewish biologist Jacques Loeb published the “Mechanistic Conception of Life,” which showed that changing the concentration of salt in the water would cause the eggs of sea urchins to develop without sperm, also known as artificial parthenogenesis.

”It is in the end still possible that I find my dream realized, to see a constructive or engineering biology in place of a biology that is merely analytical,” Campos quoted Loeb.

“Can Life Be Produced by Radium?”
June 21, 1905 the New York Times published an article on Prof. John Butler Burke of Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge about his work on spontaneous generation. The article reported on Burke’s discovery of radiobes, which he concluded were neither crystals nor bacteria:

“He used gelatine and radium...he boiled tubes of bouillon containing radium and tubes of pure bouillon. Nothing happened in the plain bouillon tubes, but in the others was grown like that seen when bouillon is inoculated with bacteria. This growth, grown in a medium absolutely lethal to all forms of life, consisted of minute rounded objects which looked like bacteria, thought not corresponding to any known kind...the objects were not bacteria, yet they seemed alive.”

Although, the research was inconclusive, the importance of Burke’s experiment was that it allowed for thought about the relationship between inorganic and organic environments. His radiobes were believed to be some sort of protein, which is the basic form of DNA.

International Genes

“Albert Blakeslee (1874-1954) paid attention to what was happening on the chromosomal level,” Campos introduced this American botanist who worked with the poisonous jimsonweed to know how chromosomes affected phenotype.

Herman J. Muller (1890-1967) won the 1946 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for the discovery of the production of mutations by means of X-ray irradiation.” He grew up in Harlem, participated in activist peace groups, studied at a prestigious genetics lab in Germany right before Hitler rose to power and became one of Carl Sagan’s teacher’s at University of Indiana. During the war, he was not able to return to the United States, nor continue to work in Germany so he followed his Jewish secretary to the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R.

Evolution of the Superhuman


“Fast forward to 1965,” said Campos. At this time people started talking about the risks of studying genetics, especially after WWII. Scientists were interested in creating the bigger, better, stronger and faster human being.

The term “synthetic biology” entered the vocabulary in the 1970s.

Campos cited Michael Roger’s coverage of the Asilomar meeting in California for Rolling Stone magazine. In his 1975 article “The Pandora’s Box Congress,” Rogers described the meeting’s location in a church by the sea as either a corny joke or rather apt joke. The conference focused on the ethics of genetic manipulation. “Nature does not need to be legislated, but playing God does,” Rogers quoted a scientist.

By the latter half of the century, scientists focused on making biology easier to engineer. Bacteria that can detect land mines by glowing, eat oil at spill sites and bacteria used for medicines are some useful reasons for genetic manipulation.

The First International Meeting on Synthetic Biology was held in the summer of 2004 at M.I.T.. Synthetic Biology 1.0, another name for the conference, referenced the 1975 Asilomar conference where the main interest was just breeding. By Synthetic Biology 2.0, the trend had become extreme genetic breeding.

Democratizing Biology


From the M.I.T. and Berkeley run conferences on genetics we arrive at the internet age with websites like DIYbio.org where amateurs attempt genetic engineering at home.

One of the final words of the evening came from Yale University’s Daniel J. Kevles who is also a science historian. He posited the notion of exploiting the essence of life and the conflict we have about genetics: genetic engineering is good when it leads to the production of better medicines but GMOs in food are bad because many people are allergic and the repercussions are not yet known.

Additional Links:

Intracellular Pangenesis by Hugo de Vries

Davenport Papers

Breeding a Better Citizenry Through Science” by Johnahan Marks, Department of Anthropology , University of North Carolina

About Guest Blogger

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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