Life Lines

Penguins are among the few animals that live in the South Pole. Stock photo

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

Life abounds from pole to pole and from the bottom of oceans to the peaks of Asian mountain tops. It does this by using the air, water and land to sustain life.

For most of the time on Earth life was confined to single-celled organisms, mostly bacteria. They take in water across a cell membrane. Most do not use oxygen from the air. Those that do came later, when some bacteria developed tools to use sunlight to combine carbon dioxide in the air with water to produce food (carbohydrates) and more abundant energy for the cell. They released oxygen and the atmosphere began to accumulate oxygen. 

Most forms of multicellular life use oxygen from the air to provide the energy to sustain their cellular life. Multicellularity permitted specialization of cells to form tissues, and the tissues then permitted organs to specialize in exchanging carbon dioxide (a waste product for animals) for oxygen.

The branching of limbs on trees is efficient to increase surfaced area for gaseous exchanges. So too are the branching of filaments in the gills of fish or the trachea of insects or the branching of the bronchi in our lungs.

When I see a tree, I see those organ systems reaching skyward with terminal leaves and an equally branched underground of roots, which are bringing in water and minerals from the land into which they are penetrated. The artist sees the beauty of the landscape. The mystic feels the awe of the complexity that seems beyond human comprehension. The scientist explores the structures and assigns functions as they emerge through the tools of science and experimentation.

It is as thrilling to me to see the cellular network of living tissues or organs under a microscope as it is to watch the changing scenery of life when driving from Indiana to New York, or taking walks in Amsterdam, Capetown, Samara, the Seychelles, the nature preserves in Kenya or the beaches of Baja Mexico.

I think of life through time as a fractal drawing with many repetitions creating new patterns. All of life requires a few basic activities. Life requires molecules to form membranes. It requires carbon-based compounds to produce the organelles that compose a cell.  All life (except viruses) is cellular. Life requires molecules that can store information to provide the molecules of life — proteins, nucleic acids, carbohydrates and lipids.

I think of the tools of the artist — a palette, brushes, tubes of oil paint, a canvas stretched on a frame, an easel to hold it. The artist can meticulously render a face, a still life or a landscape with the skills of many hundreds of hours of practice. 

Life also uses cellular tools to construct more complex membranes, organelles, chromosomes and vesicles to a symphony of functioning parts. Science enriches our understanding, opens new worlds of the very small and the very large that we do not normally see.  At most, a galaxy other than our own Milky Way is a mere dot in the sky, but close up it has 100 billion stars in it, most of them like our own sun. Our universe has billions of galaxies. 

As I type a page for an article or book, I am aware that I am coordinating the 37 trillion cells composing me. Human life mimics the universe in its immensity as our Earth now contains some 7 billion people. But this is humbled by the immensity of the astronomer’s universe or the biologist’s inventory of our own cells.    

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

The first time I heard DNA enter popular culture was hearing a record played by my son Anders. I heard the refrain, “Hey hey, hey hey! It’s DNA that made me that way.” Anders told me it was from a song called “Sheer Heart Attack” by the rock band Queen (1977).  

Since then that idea has spread from teenage rock fans to the public sphere, and in its modified form, I hear “It’s in my DNA” when a person feels passionately about an idea. Metaphors are part of how we speak but they are not always scientifically accurate. Before the era of DNA (that began with the publishing of the double helix model of DNA in 1953 by James Watson and Francis Crick), a different set of metaphors were in use going back to antiquity. 

Intense belief or fixed behaviors have been attributed to the intestines (I feel it in my gut), to the heart (I offer my heart-felt thanks), to the skeletal system (I feel it to the marrow of my bones), to the blood (royalty are blue bloods and a psychopath’s behavior reflects bad blood) and to the nervous system (argumentative personalities are called “hot headed”). 

Sumerians studied the shape of animal guts and livers to predict the future (haruspicy). Until the Renaissance the brain was thought to be the place where blood is cooled (hence the hot-headed belief). Thoreau was described by one contemporary as sucking the marrow out of life; and blood was considered the vital fluid of life. In the Renaissance the first human blood transfusions were given to provide youthful vigor by old men who believed in rejuvenation.  

When people say, “It’s in my DNA” for a behavior, they are conveying a deeply held belief that it is part of their personality as far back as they can remember or that it is innate. But the evidence for innate human social behaviors is often lacking. There are single gene effects of the nervous system that are well documented such as Huntington’s disease, which leads to dementia and paralysis with an onset usually in middle age. 

There are also family histories of psychosis and learning difficulties. The fragile X syndrome is one such well-documented condition that leads to low intelligence. But human social traits have lots of inputs from parents, siblings, playmates, neighborhoods, regional culture, ethnicity and national identity.  

Children growing up in poverty have different expectations than children whose parents are well off and send them to elite schools. Each generation uses, as best as it can, what it knows. Our knowledge of many important aspects of life and behavior is incomplete. Hence, we keep modifying our interpretations of how life works.  

Much of what is called evolutionary psychology or genetic determinism will be modified or abandoned in years to come as we learn how our genes use memories and other acquired knowledge to shape our personalities. For many cellular processes we know the flow of information from DNA (genes) to cell organelles to cellular function to tissue formation and to organ formation.  

That detailed interpretation of human behavior is not possible now for social traits. I would love to say, “It’s in my DNA” to write these Life Line columns, but my conscience would remind me that it is based on Freudian “wish fulfillment” and not careful experimentation down to the molecular level.

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

Occasionally, I read an item on Facebook that engages my attention. One item asked several celebrities (like successful billionaires) to list the five books they most enjoyed reading and briefly tell why they were important. Here are my five favorite books: 

‘Civilization and Its Discontents’ by  Sigmund Freud

Freud introduces the source of the tensions between creativity and destructiveness. He assigns it to the id/superego conflict. I would use instead our capacity for love, empathy and sympathy versus our capacity for hate, bigotry and violence. Freud calls the process sublimation. He began writing this book in 1929 and published it two years later. He predicted that the rise of Nazism was imminent and would lead to massive death because humanity does not know how to sublimate its discontents into the path of the joys of civilization — its arts, humanity, play and immense scholarship.  

‘Jean Barois’ by  Roger Martin du Gard

This is my favorite novel. It is the story of a young French boy raised by a devout Catholic family who thinks he will become a priest. He discovers instead that the more he learns the more doubts arise not only about his calling but his faith. He teaches biology and is fired for teaching evolution. His wife and daughter separate from him. He throws himself into the Freethinkers movement in France and gets involved in the Dreyfus case. He discovers that reason alone cannot sustain his life but returning to his faith is equally inadequate.  

‘The Essays of Michel de Montaigne’

Montaigne’s essays describe his life and the times in which he lived in the context of a rich appreciation of classical literature. He tries to make sense of a world that is pretentious, at war with itself and filled with irony, contradictions and lessons we can extract from the past. Read a 20th-century translation of these essays rather than the 16th-century English translation. Start with his essay on friendship and his essay: “How by various means we all end at the same place.”   

‘The Diary of Samuel Pepys’

I loved reading Pepys’s diaries and was thrilled that he was an eyewitness to the bubonic plague that swept through England in 1665 and the London fire that destroyed most of the city in 1666. Pepys is an imperfect person — not immune to accepting sacks of gold for awarding contracts for the British Navy, flirting with other women but loving his wife and learning to avoid threats to his career from others drawn to the politics of the time.

‘The Origin of Species’ by Charles Darwin 

Darwin is an excellent observer and narrator. He wrote this book as an abstract of a huge multivolume plan for presenting his theory of evolution of species by natural selection. He is careful to distinguish evidence from theory and uses the facts to derive his interpretations of how evolution works. Darwin did not start with a theory and then seek facts to support it. He went with no idea about evolution and instead allowed the hundreds of observations and findings guide him to the only interpretation that made sense of the relations he found whether it was the work of hobbyists and breeders creating new varieties of plants and animals, the geographic distribution of plants and animals he encountered in his trip around the world, or the fossils he encountered.  


I have learned to sublimate my discontents and have had 14 books published for which I thank Freud. I find Jean Barois to be the finest writing on the conflict between science and belief, science and politics and the difficulty of finding a life that sustains us. Montaigne taught me that in difficult times, we can find many things to avoid and how diverse the world is for each new generation that emerges. I have kept a diary (now 112 volumes) more years than not since I first read Pepys’s diary in 1949. Darwin’s book taught me how to use a Baconian approach to science, letting the data amass and allowing an unbiased mind to connect the dots that make new findings and interpretations possible. 

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

Giovanni Alfonso Borelli

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

Scientists have a tradition of citing those whose work helped shape their own ideas and experiments. Almost every scientific paper has a list of such journal articles or books cited by the authors of a published article in a peer-reviewed journal. Usually these references are to recent work that the author or authors have read. 

But one could chase back the references of each cited article and keep doing this to work that was published in the 1600s. Before that things get more complicated because science as we know it dates to the Renaissance. Most of those cited names are forgotten to us and we are taught the names of only a few of these many scientists. 

Thus, we single out the major contributors like Galileo and his work supporting the Copernican theory that Earth and other planets move around the sun. We cite Vesalius’s work on human anatomy, the first accurate depiction of the organs of the human body. We also cite Harvey’s work on the circulation of the blood. What these all have in common is the belief that living organisms are like machines and the laws of physics apply to interpreting their structure and function. 

One of the forgotten contributors to this view of life was Giovanni Alfonso Borelli (1608–1679). Born in Naples, he was the son of a Spanish father, Miguel Alonso, and an Italian mother, Laura Porrello. His father had been exiled from Spain for association with a heretic. This led young Giovanni at the age of 20 to change his baptismal name from Giovanni Francesco Antonio Alonso to the fully Italian sounding Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, which was a version of his mother’s surname Porrello. 

At that time Naples was a Spanish colony and Borelli grew up with his sympathies for Italian culture and political rule. He became a mathematician and astronomer first. He worked out the orbits of Galileo’s discovery of the four large moons of Jupiter and showed they were ellipses. He showed that a comet of 1664 had a parabolic path and was farther than the moon, contradicting church belief then that the comets were not as far as the moon. Isaac Newton cited his work.  

Borelli shifted to medicine and showed that the motions of animals was caused by muscle contractions and the mathematics of levers, pulleys and other machines applied to the components of the body that he studied. He rejected the prevailing view that motion was caused by a vital fluid in the muscles coming from nerves by cutting muscles and showing no such fluids were released. Instead he worked out the center of gravity for different activities of animals and founded the field of biomechanics.  

He kept moving whenever his Spanish ancestry was revealed or when he contradicted fellow scientists who clung to Aristotelian theories that Borelli rejected as nonscientific. In his later life while writing his works, he was supported by Queen Christina of Sweden who went into exile in Rome after converting to Catholicism. He taught mathematics in the convent school that she established and she paid for the publication of his book on animal motion that he dedicated to her.  

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.


By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

Biologists classify living things using a system that Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) introduced in the 18th century and that has grown in detail over the decades as new forms of life are found and studied. Humans are familiar with being vertebrates (a class of the phylum Chordata). Chordates are animals with a spinal cord, spine or an embryonic structure called a notochord. There are 55,000 chordate species. So far there are 109 phyla covering plants, animals, protozoa, fungi, bacteria and archaea, which are less precisely organized into kingdoms and domains.  

One phylum, first discovered in 1883, consisted of just one species until recently. These are the Placozoa (placo = flat and zoa = animal). They are small (about an eighth of an inch or 1 mm) and are roughly disc shaped with three layers. The top layer has cells with a hairlike thread called a cilium. The bottom layer is also ciliated but has additional cells that take in food from the ocean muck on which the placozoa live. The middle layer has amebalike cells and fiber-bearing cells that contract, making the placozoa lumpy in appearance.  

They reproduce by forming a bud that enlarges and eventually pinches off to produce identical twins. In laboratories, some of the placozoa produce sex cells (sperm and eggs), but these rarely survive the embryonic stage with about 150 cells at the time they die. No such embryos are found in samples of ocean sediments where placozoa dwell. Their DNA has been analyzed and it shows they have a past history of doubling their gene number and rearranging the sequences of their genes as they have moved about the oceans for more than 500 million years.  

Today three species are recognized from samplings around the world. They have about 12,000 genes and portions of these they share with sponges (the phylum Porifera) and comb jellies (the phylum Ctenophora).

Note that the placozoa do not have organized tissues (we have epithelial, muscular, connective and nervous tissues), a basic symmetry (we have a bilateral or left and right sides that are roughly mirror images) or body organs (we have kidneys, lungs, internal bones and eyes, ears, a nose and mouth). They have no nerve cells, muscle cells, bony structure, intestines or sense organs.  

What makes the placozoa interesting to biologists in this molecular era is the opportunity to compare the genomes of related phyla and see what genes they have to work out a molecular tree similar to the trees of life that have been worked out by comparative anatomists since Darwin’s theory of evolution provided a model of how to organize life. They represent the launching state of life before the familiar phyla of sponges, worms and more complex phyla appear in the fossil records.  

Most of the familiar phyla appear in the Cambrian era about 500 million years ago, and the placozoa are first seen in rocks designated as Ediacaran, which existed 100 million years earlier. Rocks can be dated by isotopes present in atoms that have decayed over the millennia. 

Of future interest will be identifying genes in later phyla and genes in placozoa and how they function in these different organizations of life. Also, it will be interesting to follow the genes in placozoa and in their ancestors back to protozoa in the animal kingdom. As interesting as placozoa are, they are too small to be adopted as pets in saltwater aquariums and hard to differentiate without a lens from the muck that accumulates in a fish tank.     

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

In 1974 I was a Hill Foundation visiting professor at the University of Minnesota, invited by the History of Science Department to interact with its faculty and students. One faculty member who showed up to my seminar class was Robert Desnick who was interested in medical genetics and he had completed both an M.D. and Ph.D.  

Four years later I arranged with Desnick, who was on the faculty of the medical school, to go on rounds with his pediatric fellows so I could learn what human genetics disorders were like (30 percent of the pediatric patients had some medical genetic condition). I also used my time there to study the genetics of retinoblastoma, a cancer of the eye in children that can affect one or both eyes, and I published two papers with Desnick on that study. I also met Robert Gorlin who had a dental degree and became a world expert on syndromes of the head and neck and whose book on those conditions was a classic (now in its fifth edition).     

I thought about those experiences recently as I read articles in the Public Library of Science (PLoS) on the web about the genetics of the face. All vertebrates have heads with eyes, nose, mouth and ears. I knew from my embryology class as a graduate student that the vertebrate embryo forms a neural tube and one end balloons into a brain. A group of cells along the seamline of the tube migrates and portions of it form the face as do slabs of embryonic tissue that come together to form the skull or cranium. Genes controlling these movements and managing the tissues involved were known from a variety of genetic disorders that Gorlin and Desnick had been following.  

In reading the PLoS articles I felt like Rip van Winkle becoming acquainted with a new world that I had slept through. There are now almost a thousand syndromes of human disorders of the head, neck and face. Hundreds of genes involved have been isolated and sequenced. A smaller portion have had their functions worked out. There is one major gene for cleft lip and palate and dozens of other genes that can modify its severity. Some are tied to a vitamin (folic acid) deficiency and may also lead to spina bifida.  

The story unfolding at a molecular level is still in its infancy but enough is known to make some reasonable predictions. In a few decades it may be possible to examine the DNA of persons (even mummies or the bones of ancient humans) and reconstruct on a computer screen the portraits of their faces as adults. I toyed with this possibility in 1968 in a public lecture I gave at UCLA (50 years go by like a flash when you turn 87). Back then it was all based on speculation.

In 50 years, as the PLoS articles demonstrate, the changes in knowledge are accelerating thanks to the zebrafish (Danio rerio) as a model organism for vertebrate embryology. The zebrafish embryo has transparent cells, so one can look at embryos forming and identify each of the cells involved. 

Biologists have known since Darwin’s writing in the 1860s that facial expressions exist among animals, but humans are remarkable in the nuances facial expressions convey — a Mona Lisa smile, a raised eyebrow of skepticism, a pout, a crying child and the contracted muscles of a bigot shouting slurs are only a few of the many ways we read other people’s faces. At present we can only guess how many genes are involved in these facial gestures. A genetic component is involved because identical twins raised apart for many years show remarkable similarity in their facial expressions and mannerisms.    

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

We are now in a molecular age in which individual genes can be sequenced and their functions studied.

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

You are a multicellular organism. In fact you have about 37 trillion cells. That’s 37,000,000,000,000 if you like numbers. Cells were first described in 1665 by Robert Hooke who looked at cork bark under a crude microscope he had invented. The cells he saw were empty boxes. He believed this was the cause of cork’s buoyancy. 

It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that lenses and stain technology developed to reveal detail inside cells. It also permitted several biologists to promote a theory that all cells arise from pre-existing cells and that organisms are composed of cells. 

In that stage of our knowledge of life, scientists worked out mitosis (how cells divide) and meiosis (how cells form reproductive cells). They learned that chromosomes carried the genes, or hereditary units, that produce all the components and cellular types in an organism. In the last half of the 20th century they learned how to take apart and put together components of the living cell. 

We see multicellular life among plants and animals around us, but we cannot see single-celled organisms without a microscope. Microscopic single cells exist for bacteria, certain algae, certain fungi and most protozoa. The presence of multicellular organisms goes back to about 2.5 billion years ago with filaments of cells in ancient rocks.  

About 20 years ago I was delighted to read about experiments by Nicole King (UC Berkeley) showing that one-celled organisms, similar to those found in sponges, could be selected to join in clumps. That has been greatly extended to algal cells (Chlamydomonas, Volvox) and fungi (yeast). 

William Ratcliff at Georgia Tech recently published results of selection for larger and heavier yeast cells that settled down on the bottom of test tubes. He isolated some that developed adhesions. From continued selection (hundreds of generations of yeast) he obtained some that formed flakelike arms or branches and that reproduced by breaking off branches. 

King, who continues her work, has isolated more than 300 genes associated with multicellularity, many of them found in single-celled organisms. By combining different groups of genes, she can increase the likelihood of producing multicellular units.  

Multicellular organisms can be simple like balls or they can be complex with specialized tissues and organs. They can dig deeper into the earth or extend their range from a few feet to miles or across continents. There have been millions of species that constantly change the way the surface of the earth appears. We are now in a molecular age in which individual genes can be sequenced and their functions studied. 

If I see a picture of myself, I see my surface of skin and hair clothed or unclothed. With X-rays I can see my bones, but not as well as a human skeleton mounted in an anatomy laboratory. I have seen what my tissues look like from a box with a hundred or more slides that I studied at NYU as an undergraduate. 

I have lived through the discoveries of identifying my genes as made of DNA, and we are now capable of sequencing them and understanding what they do. Each finding adds to both our medical knowledge for pathologists and to basic science in understanding how a living organism works.  

I would not be surprised to see experiments that will produce synthetic multicellular organisms using genes from different organisms to produce differentiated cells for each task desired. It will be a biological engineering that goes beyond applications to the pharmaceutical industry. Think of them as microscopic or miniature tools. Imagine tools snipping away tumors less than a millimeter in diameter. Imagine such tools extracting and expelling miniature pellets of gold and rare metals from ocean water. 

For those who worry about unintended consequences of applied science, two things are important to consider. Such experiments should be well regulated by ethical and safety review boards by universities, hospitals and corporations. The odds of such synthetic organisms are remote. Similar safety concerns in the 1980s accompanied the development of genetically modified bacteria and yeast cells, which today continue to produce human insulin for diabetics, human growth hormone for children with pituitary hormone deficiencies and hundreds of other modifications.  

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

Silkworms are popular among Japanese geneticists because of the silk industry.

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

I got my doctorate working with a model organism, the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. It was introduced to science about 1905 at Harvard where William Castle and his students studied the wing veins of these flies for subtle changes that Darwin’s theory of natural selection proposed. Castle suggested to Thomas Morgan at Columbia that he could use fruit flies for a study of mutations that Morgan hoped to launch. 

Morgan was luckier than Castle because his use of fruit flies led to the discovery of sex-linked inheritance and a process of shifting genes between matched chromosomes. It led to the chromosome theory of heredity and the theory of the gene as a unit of inheritance present in chromosomes.  

Botanists found corn or maize (Zea mays) an ideal organism and classical genetics had inputs from both fruit flies and maize. The most famous contributor to maize genetics was Barbara McClintock who worked out a field of cytogenetics by isolating structural components and consequences for broken chromosomes that experienced rearrangements.  

The bacteriophage viruses and bacteria like Escherichia coli were major contributors to molecular biology. Bacteria are cells but viruses are not. Viruses do have a life cycle, living as destructive parasites or beneficial insertions into bacterial chromosomes. Bacteriophage studies confirmed many of the predictions of DNA as the chemical basis of heredity. They also confirmed that a virus’ proteins are not needed to produce the proteins of its progeny. 

The flow of information goes from the genes as DNA to molecules of RNA carrying the genetic messages to cellular units that translate them into proteins. Bacteria were also used to work out how genes are switched on and off, an important process that regulates how cells work. Most of these early studies in molecular genetics were initiated by Max Delbrück for bacteriophage viruses and by Joshua Lederberg for bacteria. 

For higher organisms a life cycle involves fertilization of an egg by a sperm and the formation of an embryo, which forms different organs with the resulting baby turning into an infant or child and eventually a mature adult and lastly an aged or senescent individual who dies. Sydney Brenner in 1963 suggested using a nematode, the roundworm found in the soil, Caenorhabditis elegans, to work out how this life cycle can be studied at a molecular level. They are similar to the roundworms called vinegar eels seen in flasks of organic apple cider vinegar.  

A fruit fly

Genetics is a composite of the work with many different organisms in plant, animal, and microbial worlds of life. The designation model organism for research biologists distinguishes the usage of research organisms. Applied genetics is often used with specific purposes in mind that benefit the economy. Silkworms are popular among Japanese geneticists because of the silk industry. Tomato geneticists are interested in color, flavor, texture, size and shelf life as they are for most vegetable crops, applying genetics to improve varieties.  

Model organisms were chosen to explore the biology, especially the genetics, reproduction, embryology, metabolism, neurobiology or other fundamental ways living organisms have adapted to their environments and evolved. Biologists working with model organisms often find that once the basic biology is worked out it can be applied to benefit health and the economy. It may take decades before that happens.  

When Calvin Bridges in Morgan’s laboratory found extra or missing chromosomes associated with fruit flies, he did not know that some 40 years later extra chromosomes would be associated with birth defects or disorders in humans such as Down syndrome (trisomy 21) or Klinefelter syndrome (XXY males).  

In some ways humans serve as a model organism. Linus Pauling was interested in how red blood cells carry oxygen from the air and discharge carbon dioxide into it. His curiosity led to a working out of the structure of the hemoglobin molecule and its mutational difference when healthy individuals have their hemoglobin analyzed and compared to that of persons with sickle cell anemia. Pauling called sickle cell anemia a molecular disease. Note that Pauling’s motivation was not that of a physician seeking a cure for a disease but that of a chemist seeking the molecular basis of how we breathe and why oxygen and carbon dioxide ended up exchanging places in red blood cells. 

Humans are also model organisms for the field of neurobiology, especially for processes like memory, learning, association, pattern recognition and speech, most  of which would be difficult to infer from the study of a roundworm’s much limited nervous system. This human study is more likely to be at the physiological and anatomical level rather than the molecular level because there are numerous brain injuries and genetic disorders of the nervous system that can be used to identify where to look for these functions.   

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

It is impossible to know ourselves in all the aspects of our lives that we can examine. But we can know a lot about ourselves through science. 

I will start at the level most of us operate in — the macroscopic world in which we see ourselves as a person. I see myself as an old person, almost 85 years old. I see myself as a male, a husband, a father (three out of six of our children still living). I also see myself functionally — I am a scientist, a geneticist and historian of science.  

I have 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. I am an American, born and mostly raised in Brooklyn. I did my undergraduate work at NYU. I got my doctorate at Indiana University with Nobel laureate H. J. Muller. I presently live in Bloomington, Indiana. I have sailed around the world twice teaching on board Semester at Sea. I have had 12 books published. I loved teaching and doing research at Queen’s University in Canada, at UCLA and at Stony Brook University. 

Biologically I have some knowledge of much of my gross anatomy and as a biologist I have some familiarity with my organ systems and how they work. I have observed some of my cells under a microscope when I took a course on histology at NYU as an undergraduate and I prepared slides of my blood. I have seen my 46 chromosomes when I had my karyotype taken some 50 years ago at UCLA. I have not yet had any of my 20,000 genes sequenced. 

But even if I had my entire genome sequenced, I know that no one reading those sequences would be able to infer my life described in the first three paragraphs of this essay because our social traits are largely acquired by where we grow up, the circumstances of our lives in the generation in which we are born and a good measure of luck.

 It was luck that gave me an opportunity to read classical literature aloud for five years to a blind teacher in my high school.  It was luck that made me meet the person to whom I am now married, and Nedra and I have had 58 wonderful years together.  

I am part cyborg with eye glasses (for reading), cataract-free plastic lenses in my eyeballs, six implants in my jaws and two hearing aids. I have the benefit of an altered immune system created by vaccinations that have spared me from diphtheria, typhoid fever, smallpox, pneumonia and many varieties of influenza. I’ve lived through measles, mumps and chicken pox without bad outcomes. When traveling around the world, I prevented malaria by taking daily Atabrine pills. I would probably have died 10 years ago had there not been statins to regulate my cholesterol metabolism.  

I know how I am connected in many ways. My biological ancestors are Swedish on my father’s side and Ashkenazic Ukraine on my mother’s side. My intellectual pedigree through Muller I have traced to Darwin, Newton and Galileo. It made me aware of how few compose the world of scholars in the immense diversity of humanity. 

I owe to many books aspects of my personality, values and goals in life. From Goethe, I have a Faustian personality and try not to repeat my activities each year. From Montaigne I learned to write personal essays. From Samuel Pepys I learned to keep a diary (over 100 volumes and still going). From Freud I learned to sublimate my discontents into works that enrich civilization. From Darwin I learned how all of life is connected and can be related to the past through his theory of evolution by natural selection. 

From Socrates I learned the importance of trying his credo, “Know thyself.” From Job I learned the inscrutability of fate and how limited is our control over our lives. From Kant I learned that ethics and moral behavior can be constructed from reason. From Epicurus and Epictetus I learned that one of the great benefits of life is choosing well and using, as best we can, what talents we have within the limits imposed by society’s circumstances. 

I think of myself as composed of layers of units. I am a unique organism. I have numerous organs that compose my physical being. I am composed of several trillion cells. 

The gene activity in my body and mind are in constant associations with past, present and anticipated activities of cells, some switched on, others off, and at different times and in different places in my body. It is a biological symphony of which I am mostly unaware.  

My cells have organelles that are also working on and off to make molecules, digest molecules and recycle molecules.  My organelles are composed of macromolecules whose organization and function have been worked out mostly since I was born. I know nothing of my life at the level of individual atoms save for those that are passing through membranes and ion channels or transported by proteins in my cells. 

I also know an important lesson of life. There is an enormous amount we do not know and humility alone should restrain us from acting as if we have certainty on our side, especially if our beliefs lead to intentional or unintentional bad consequences.  Know thyself may and does celebrate life but it can also be taken as a warning.  

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

in Greek mythology, he Caucasian Eagle was tasked by Zeus to torture Prometheus every day.

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

Science is a way of knowing. In today’s world it is based on reason, experimentation, technology and a belief that the natural world can be explained without invoking the supernatural as an explanation. Components of this definition of science have been around ever since humans formed communities and left traces of their daily lives in caves, burial sites and waste disposal sites.  

But in oral lore and written accounts more than 2,000 years ago, three supernatural explanations were used to explain how science arose. In Genesis, we are told the story of Adam and Eve and how Eve was tempted to eat of one of two forbidden trees in the Garden of Eden. Eve and Adam ate of the fruit from the tree of knowledge. For this disobedience Adam and Eve were cursed with a life cycle ending in death as well as pain and a struggle to survive.  

We owe to Greek mythology two different ways knowledge came to humans. Prometheus felt sorry that humans were helpless victims of difficult environments and he gave them a tool, fire, to warm themselves and make their own tools and form a civilization. For this, Prometheus was punished and chained to a rock by Zeus and had an eagle devour his liver every day only to have it regenerate at night.    

The other Greek myth involves Pandora who was given guardianship of a closed box containing the environments of the future. Her curiosity got the best of her and she opened it, shutting in hope and releasing all the ills of the world — disease, hunger, war, failure and madness.   

Note that the biblical version uses material reward (appetite or self-indulgence) as the motivation for disobedience. Adam and Eve and all of humanity to come are punished for their act. Note that Prometheus, not mankind, is punished for giving a tool to humanity. Note that Pandora’s curiosity is blamed for the ills of society.  

These three mythic views of how knowledge came to humanity reveal a tension between the world seen by those invoking the supernatural and the views of those who innovate, who explore their curiosity about the world and who show how to apply knowledge to advance human happiness and desire for improvement of their circumstances.  

The tension between religion and science is not a winner takes all choice with either one side or the other being correct, historically or in practice. Scientists can betray the ideal of science through fraud, conflict of interest or indifference to real or possible bad outcomes of their work. Religious or not, humans frequently rationalize their behavior.  

It is the Prometheus version of the gift of fire to make tools and apply science to human welfare that most scientists would favor. Science is seen as a way of describing the world and changing harmful environments into safe ones. It is a tool that leads to new knowledge and experiments and endless applications.   

In Pandora’s universe curiosity is not seen as beneficial. It is seen as a dangerous behavior leading to the release of the evils of this world. What kept us safe before Pandora was some supernatural box in which those evils were contained. Pandora, like Eve, could not resist satisfying her curiosity. But unlike Adam and Eve, she was not looking for a material benefit symbolized by forbidden fruit.  

Note the role of compassion in the motivation of Prometheus. Note the lustful anticipation in Eve’s gullible acceptance of the snake’s guile and to the sexual nature of knowledge reflected by Adam and Eve making clothes as their first act after eating the fruit. Note the lack of forethought to unintended consequences in Pandora’s opening the box.  

While all generations of humanity have faced similar hardships of finding food, building shelters, raising a family and finding meaning in their lives, different generations have interpreted knowledge and its applications in many ways. But all three ancient views of the acquisition of knowledge share a belief, regardless of its origins or its occasional shortcomings, in the importance of knowledge and technology in order to live a better life.    

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University