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Elof Carlson

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By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

Science is a way of enlarging our knowledge about the  universe. It is not the only way to do so.  We can experience the universe through our travels, our observation of the changing seasons, our feelings of awe at a glorious sunset, or the joy of seeing a rainbow form after a passing rain shower. 

We can also experience a feeling that many call spiritual, through meditation, prayers, or reverential feelings. All societies experience these different ways of encountering the diversity of the universe and how to classify the world we experience around us. What sets science apart is its use of reason and tools to explore the universe.

Experimental science was formalized during the renaissance especially in Italy where Galileo and his students did experiments to work out the first laws of physics using inclined planes and quantitative relations to show a mathematical measure of speed and acceleration. Galileo also added the use of the telescope to explore the heavenly bodies and showed Venus had phases like the moon, the moon had craters and mountain ranges, Jupiter had 4 moons whose orbits he and his students worked out, and the sun had sunspots whose migrations allowed him to show the sun rotates on an axis.

That is not knowledge one gets from revelation or looking for bible codes in the Old Testament verses. It led to a dualism with Descartes and other philosophers seeing the universe as containing two realms – the material universe accessible to science through reason and experimentation and the spiritual or supernatural world that was accessible by revelation and scriptural interpretations of theologians. The Renaissance was also contentious, and Protestants and Catholics fought over who should interpret the Bible.

The relation between the world interpreted by science and the world interpreted by the supernatural has been an uneasy one ever since the Renaissance. Many people have no problem balancing the two ways to experience their lives. Other feel uncomfortable with the supernatural or uncomfortable with the scientific outlook expressed as atheism agnosticism, humanism, or scientism.

I am a scientist, and in that role I avoid explanations invoking the supernatural. I describe what is accessible through observation, experimentation, and the tools of science to investigate what is complex and render it interpretable through my studies. But I am also a human being who enjoys listening to music, going to museums to see great artworks and reading wonderful books of fiction and human imagination.

Science enlarged the universe I can live in and made possible the long life I have lived.  Some people, however, have a more ambivalent relation to science. They see it as destructive to their spiritual beliefs. They see it as destroyer of their children’s faith. They see it as sterile of emotions and human feelings. They see it as a rival that deprives them of the total freedom of the will to do what they want when they want. 

We see this in the  responses to the  advice offered by the nation’s epidemiologists and microbiologists who have studied infectious disease. Germs have no ideology. They have hosts. Those hosts can include you or me.

My response to a contagious disease is to follow what science recommends. I get a flu shot each year. I was immunized in my youth against smallpox, polio, and whooping cough. I had the measles and got an autoimmunity from that as was the case for mumps during the Depression years I grew up.

I am puzzled that adults can take offense at being told to  wear a facial mask to prevent spraying their germs in the streets and rooms they occupy as well as serving as a protection from those germs exhaled from our mouths and noses.

I am puzzled that people belittle scientists who measure the oceans’ temperatures and the study of the melting of glaciers around the polar regions and who keep careful records showing increases of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and a rising temperature of the atmosphere and a rising sea level and more numerous and severe climate changes around the world. The evidence is overwhelming that it is caused by a fossil fuel carbon-based civilization and that it needs regulation through international treaties.

But those who ignore or reject science do not offer an alternative to changing our habits of how we live. What is it besides “wishful thinking” or denial that they offer in response? I am not advocating that science always has good outcomes. Science, like all human activity, has to be monitored, assessed and regulated. Pollution of the land, air and waters that are essential  for our lives needs regulation. Science often lends its help to the construction of weapons of mass destruction which is just rationalized murder of the innocent who are embedded in the guilty we designate as the enemy.

In a democracy it is our obligation to debate the uses and abuses of science as well as the uses and abuses of cultural beliefs and political ideologies. It is false to believe that society and nature are always self-correcting without human involvement in how we respond to the  threats often of our own making.

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

The Christopher Columbus statue at Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park in Boston was beheaded on June 10.

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

I can accept the toppling of statues of dictators and those who were traitors and I can see as justified the removal of Confederate flags from public places. People whose personal deeds were heinous to Americans, like Confederate generals, or Benedict Arnold, have few virtues that can compensate for the major actions associated with their names.

It is more difficult for me to remove Columbus’s name from cities and our national celebrations of the opening up of the New World to Europe. The history of colonization is as old as history. Kings conquered whether in biblical times or in the fifteenth century.  If all present occupants are colonizers and descendants of colonizers, should they go back to the countries that their ancestors left?  Where would it end? In the Middle East when all the countries of the world were in the Middle East?

A similar difficulty is honoring a scientist for a major contribution to knowledge. Good science can be done by people of any ideology, religion, or ethnicity. Good science can be done in countries led by dictators. The scientists in those countries are also patriotic to their countries. They may also vary in their personalities regardless of how their countries are governed. A good scientist can make major contributions to humanity while being a cheating spouse, a tyrant as a mentor, a sexist, or a bigot.

I enjoy reading a lot about science and scientists. Most people are not saints. I am reminded of a phrase I learned in school — “most heroes have feet of clay.” It is important that a work of science is independent of the scientist’s personal behavior and beliefs. Often those beliefs are learned by the scientist who is shaped by the culture in which he or she resides.

In the 19th and 20th centuries most people were raised with racial theories that were discriminatory and prevailing views of human differences were based on what turned out to be false assumptions.

Virtually every educated person raised in the 1800s and early 1900s believed there were classes of people who were social failures. They called them paupers or degenerates. They falsely believed that they had defective heredity although genetics was not a science until the twentieth century. Some believed this defective heredity was caused by bad environments and could be reversed by good environments. Some believed the damage was irreversible except through draconian measures by laws forbidding their marriage or even worse, by sterilizing them as unfit to reproduce. It led to the “negative eugenics” movement that we reject today.

Very different was the “positive eugenics” movement that led to a conscious use of assortative mating, urging those who were successful, healthy, long lived, and talented to marry similar well-endowed spouses. Even W. E. Dubois embraced this positive eugenics outlook in 1903 calling it the “talented tenth” who would lead Black people out of the subjugated state most found themselves to be through neglect and bias of white society.

I believe we need to weigh a lot of issues in making decisions about renaming buildings, putting person’s portraits on currency, and naming our cities, high schools, and other public places. Should we avoid buying Volkswagens because Hitler wanted German automakers to make a “people’s car?” Should we avoid eating cream puffs because they were Hitler’s favorite dessert?

Humans live with diversity and not all that diversity is what we choose for our own lifestyle. We live with contradictory values, sometimes having rigid rules of behavior where right and wrong are clear-cut (don’t lie, cheat, or kill others) and other times we practice utilitarian ethics and go with “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Sometimes we trample on basic human rights in our self-serving interests like dropping atomic bombs on two Japanese cities filled with mostly noncombatant men, women and children.

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

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By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

In the life sciences, progress works incrementally.

The cell theory, for example, began in the 1600s with the observation of a cellular composition of cork bark with one the first microscopes. There was no cell theory (all the organisms we see are composed of cells) until 1838. The cell doctrine (cells arise from preexisting cells) came a generation later in the 1850s. A decade later, stain technology was introduced. In the 1930s electron microscopes were introduced. Molecular biology wasn’t introduced until the 1950s.

With each incremental advance, new tools, new data and new experiments are carried out. This can result in new insights on how life works, and it can be applied to disease in humans and other living things.

We manipulate life when we treat it because nature has no doctors or living things are at the whim of luck for their survival and evolution allows the healthiest, the most adapted, to survive and pass on their lucky genes. But today’s scientists can use a great deal of that incremental knowledge and apply it to our benefit.

One lead I find very exciting to read about and I am confident the next generation of science students will be excited by the advances taking place — It is now possible to begin a field of molecular neurology. The physiology of nerve cells is well worked, and we know how nerve impulses are transmitted and how reflexes form, and many other experimental approaches have provided an understanding of normal and diseased functioning of the nervous system. But the genes involved have been elusive.

Two fields have been added to the arsenal of approaches for exploring this. One is the field of stem cell research. The other is the use of fruit flies as model organisms to study the molecular genetics of fruit fly brains. Flies have the advantage of a limited number of activities that can be explored. They have courtship rituals, they have innate responses to gravity or to light, and they have vision, hearing, and taste as well as response to pain.

Some of the biochemical pathways in fruit flies are also found in humans and there is a surge of interest in using two approaches. One is finding chemicals  that shift slumbering stem cells into active nerve cells. This would allow treatments in coming years for neuromuscular disorders like multiple sclerosis. It could also slow down the aging process in which our stem cells lose the capacity to replace aged and dying neurons in the brain causing senility and other neurological disorders like Parkinson disease.

I am also a realist and historian of science. I know that such imagined future worlds can take decades or generations to achieve. We do not live in a totally known universe, and we only know a fraction of the way life has evolved over 3 billion years on earth. But by studying gene mutations involved with neuron formation and function, of stem cell activation, and of how humans can devise interventions for our health, we can feel confident that a lot more useful knowledge will emerge.

My realist side also tells me that all knowledge can be abused and we have learned to enact legislation to regulate most of our scientific and technological and malevolent intentions or warped values so that some do not exploit new technologies and shut down the progress needed to enlighten us and benefit us in an always troubled world.

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

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By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

Humans have known of epidemics throughout recorded history. 

Biblical “visitations” as they were called, include locusts, infectious diseases, fire and brimstone, and other calamities, the worst of which was the Noachian Flood that wiped out most of life that could not survive in the air, in the water, or on Noah’s ark. That is a religious, not secular event.

 Secular plagues go back to Roman, Greek, and Egyptian civilizations. These could have been typhus, cholera, and bubonic plagues. The most disastrous in more recent memory was the bubonic plague of the 1350s which killed one third of the population. 

Our present worry is the coronavirus pandemic. As I write this, it is in its still early stage, with only a few countries imposing a nationwide quarantine and testing program to check its spread. From the early statistics it does not seem to kill more than 3 percent of those infected. That too is skewed by the heavier mortality among the aged population (those over 65) where it is as high as 10 percent of those infected. 

I am 88 so I am aware of my vulnerability and follow the directives about travel, meetings, handwashing and being careful but not obsessed (I have not hoarded food or antiseptics). I am confident this will pass without killing a substantial portion of humanity. 

One reason it is hard to do a Noah-like massacre of all life on land is the nature of our immune systems. It is hard to design or conceive of a protein surface of a virus or bacterium that can penetrate any cell of any organism. In order to enter, a microbe must have a surface protein capable of attachment to the host cell. It must have one or more proteins capable of digesting that surface. It must have one or more capacities, once entering its DNA or RNA, to replicate and produce more of its kind than any effort by the cell or the infected organism to attack it. 

We know this has never happened in the past three billion years of life because we are alive. There is a constant, back and forth, relation of mutations that increase virulence or hosts and new mutations that prevent microbes from entering or surviving in a penetrated cell. The odds are also in our favor because humans can develop vaccines to immunize against infections.  

What this pandemic reminds us, however, is that our governments need to anticipate such events (usually once or twice a century) with public health programs and effective limits of public gathering and isolating those infected.  

At its early stages the temptation is to deny that an epidemic is starting or will be widespread. No one wants commerce to be disrupted by fears that empty our stores and diminish spending. For this reason, people who have spent their careers in public health are more trustworthy than politicians who are guided by wishful thinking that this is just a false alarm.  

Whenever I read of health workers dying from contact with individuals who sicken and die, the biologist in me says listen to the experts in public health, not those who are guided by their political ideologies and instincts.  

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

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By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

We sometimes say “you can’t see the forest for the trees” to describe our frustration that details sometimes obscure the big pictures in our lives. Those bigger pictures are often what matters most to us − our family, our career, our sense of self-worth, or the meaning we hope to find in life.

It also has a deep philosophic or religious significance to people. We talk about ultimate meaning, purpose or connectedness to the universe as ways to express this feeling. I experience it in my life as a scientist. I am a reductionist and by that I mean I use reason and the tools of science to explore all aspects of the material universe. What is that universe? It is the world of atoms, molecules, macromolecules, membranes, organelles, cells, tissues, organs, organism, populations and ecosystems that constitute the hierarchies of life from its smallest to its largest aspects. 

You can’t have a forest without a lot of trees. How much is a “lot”? Two trees? 100 trees? 1,000 trees? There is no definition of how many trees make a forest. Language can be imprecise by the standards used by science. A foot is 12 inches. A mile is 5,280 feet, but a forest is not X trees where X is a fixed number. 

This does not mean the term “forest” is meaningless. We know a forest when we see many trees even if we don’t have a precise number to offer. I cannot tell you the exact number of cells in my present adult body, but I know roughly what it can’t exceed (it is trillions, not quadrillions; trillions, not billions). When my brother Roland first visited our home on Mud Road in Setauket, he looked in the back lot and said “Elof, the children are entering the forest!” There were about 40 trees in our one-third acre lot adjoining Gelinas Junior High School. 

There are two approaches to studying life. We can study components and the field of anatomy would be a familiar and acceptable model of how science classifies the parts of the organisms studied. The second approach is through function and the field of physiology tries to relate structures to their functions. They are often multiple. 

A hand holds, touches, feels; it grips, hits, shakes, picks, wipes, waves, counts, points, caresses, prays or even thumbs a ride. A middle finger hand gives an insult. Reductionism in science is the attempt to reduce the complex to the simple by isolating the components of more complex things and after isolating the components and learning of their functions, it reconstitutes the pieces and hopes to restore the functions. It can be done with viruses. It can be done partially with bacterial and eukaryotic cells. One can take the cell membrane of one amoeba, the nucleus of a second and the “cytoplasmic goop” of a third and reconstitute a live amoeba capable of reproducing from the three components. 

There is a second way of looking at life called holism. It regards complexity in living cells as irreducible by reductionism. There is something inherent in that structure that cannot be duplicated by reductionist tools and efforts. In the nineteenth century names like enteleche, elan vital, vitalism, were among the terms used for this holistic interpretation of life. 

It was hard to take away from God the power of creation. Many scientific holists do not invoke religion as the basis for their belief in a complexity that defies reductionism. They feel that the shades of distinction in living systems are either infinite or so vast that no human effort will synthesize a human zygote from which a child will be born. They also feel that whether that complexity eventually yields to reductionism, the world’s problems are so numerous and complex, that we cannot use reductionism alone as our means of interpreting how we live or who we are. They are more like phenomenologists in the field of philosophy who see endless shades of meaning in even the simplest events like describing the color of objects we see. 

My response to this conflict is at least satisfying to my worldview − I see both trees and the forest, reductionism and holism, as essential for navigating the universe in which I live. I can ascend or descend the scale of magnitude of the universe from atoms to galaxies. My one exclusion in the material universe is the supernatural. 

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

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By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

When I gaze at the night sky and look for landmarks like Orion’s Belt or the Big Dipper, I recall my delight as a child reading a picture book on Donald Duck and there he was, on the last page, as a constellation in the sky. 

It taught me that constellations are assigned arbitrary names – is that a big bear (Ursa Major) or is that a big dipper? The stars composing the constellation may differ in age, size, location and chemical composition. It is only their position with respect to our sun that makes them a constellation.

I think of political platforms in the same way. As an old man of 88 years, I remember political campaigns since the 1940s, and in 1940 I saw Roosevelt being driven in an open car in Midtown Manhattan, campaigning for a third term. In those days Republicans took pride in less government interference and, in addition to less taxes and less regulation of business, they favored less interference in our private lives.

They were opposed to bans on family planning and the contraceptives chosen for birth control. In those days the religious right was not sought by either party, and the religious right was still recovering form the pro-fascist sympathies of the KKK, the crushing defeat of Bryan in the Scopes evolution trial in Dayton, Tennessee, on the teaching of evolution in the public schools and the America First movement whose attacks on Roosevelt were slanderous and did not cease until Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

In those post-WWII days, it was the Democrats who were saddled with states’ rights, Jim Crow laws and the religious right. It was in 1948 that the Democrats split into the Dixiecrats and the liberal Democrats.

The Dixiecrats tried forming their own party and failed. It was Nixon and Reagan who accepted the “Southern strategy” to give the Dixiecrats a new home in the Republican Party, and we have continued to see the trend, each party tilting left or right as voting opportunities, demographic change and political opportunism create new constellations of values or platforms for each party.

We live in an inconsistent world with neither extremism nor inconsistency a desired product of our political parties, but nevertheless becoming a reality. While we may be limited in how we shape the political climate, it does help to know that politics lacks the rigor or testing methods of science. We need to keep a healthy skepticism when endorsing the platforms of the party appealing to our political prejudices and ideals.

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.

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.

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Oxford University, Gilman Hall

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

If I had to praise a virtually unknown person as having had the greatest impact on our lives, I would choose Daniel Coit Gilman (1831–1908). Gilman attended Yale University and majored in geography. He became an administrator and founded the Sheffield School of Science at Yale, became the president of the University of California and in 1876 became the first president of Johns Hopkins University. He also helped set up the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C.

In 1875 when he was asked to be president of Johns Hopkins University, he embarked on a tour of Europe. He liked the German university emphasis on scholarly research, the ideas of Thomas Huxley on liberal education, and came back with several European scholars who agreed to teach at Johns Hopkins, which opened its program in 1876.

Gilman started his university with a graduate school, then added an undergraduate program and eventually a medical school. He felt the German model was flawed by giving too much power to a single professor in a department who chose subordinates to teach or assist in research. Instead Gilman created departments with several professors committed to scholarship so they could stimulate their research and mentor graduate students who benefited from the multiple outlooks of the department.

By 1910 the success of the Johns Hopkins graduate program shifted the flow of scholars going from the United States to Germany, and after World War I the flow of scholars moved westward to American graduate schools. Gilman’s ideas led to the overwhelming success in Americans winning Nobel Prizes especially in physics, chemistry and the life sciences. It also flooded industries, hospitals and agencies with talented people applying their skills and creativity to their work.

I wish every science teacher would read T. H. Huxley’s “A Liberal Education and Where to Find It” and “On a Piece of Chalk.” They were published about 1868. The first essay shows how Huxley approached education as a way to connect the sciences, art and humanities, shifting knowledge away from an exclusive focus on Greek and Roman civilization as it was then in British schools and toward our connection to the universe in which we live.

Daniel Coit Gilman

The second is an example of good teaching. When I first read his essay when I was about 19 or 20, I could see him in my mind lecturing to the public and holding a piece of chalk in his hand and describing some shavings of it under the microscope revealing the miniature snail-like skeletons of plankton that dribbled down to build the chalk cliffs of Dover. I wanted to be like Huxley, creating lectures that would send shivers of surprise and delight at new knowledge that touched students’ lives.

I singled out Gilman as an educator who changed how knowledge can be learned and transmitted. Our Nobel Prizes and the esteem of rewards are showered on those who make wonderful contributions to knowledge. They are rarely given to founders of institutions that make new ways of learning possible. Both are necessary in our lives.

If I had to single out the one scientist who made the greatest contribution to humanity, I would give that honor to Louis Pasteur for introducing the germ theory of contagious diseases. His use of the microscope to investigate the spoilage of wines turning to vinegar showed that small round yeast cells were replaced by smaller rod-shaped bacteria. His experiments demonstrated numerous infectious diseases as stemming from specific bacteria. It led to vaccinations, public health programs, pasteurization of the milk children drink and the reduction of infant mortality, allowing mean life expectancy to rise from about 45 years at birth to about 80 years today.

New knowledge and inquisitive minds are what make civilization possible.

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

There are millions of species of living things. Until the 1860s biologists divided them into two kingdoms, animals and plants.

Louis Pasteur revealed a third group of microscopic bacteria that caused disease, fermented foods (like cheeses), rotted food and decomposed dead organisms. In the mid-20th century this third group, known as prokaryotes, was shown to consist of eubacteria and archaea, differing mostly in how they used energy to carry out their living activities.

Bacteria mostly use oxygen, sunlight and carbon dioxide as fuels and an energy source. Some bacteria are like green plants and use chlorophyll to convert carbon molecules to food and release oxygen. Most of Earth’s atmosphere arose from that early growth of photosynthetic bacteria. Archaea mostly use sulfur, superheated water and more extreme environmental conditions (like deep sea vents) for their energy.

Biologists today identify cellular life as having three domains — archaea, bacteria and eukaryotes. We belong to the eukaryotes whose cells have nuclei with chromosomes. The eukaryotes include multicellular animals, multicellular plants, unicellular protozoa (protists), unicellular algae and fungi.

The two prokaryotic domains and the five eukaryotic groups are designated as kingdoms. A rough time table of early life on Earth would put prokaryotic life about 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago, the first free oxygen in our atmosphere about 3.5 billion years ago, the first eukaryotic cells about 2.5 billion years ago and the first multicellular organisms about 1.5 billion years ago.

The branches of the tree of life biologists construct have an earliest ancestor called LUCA (for the last universal common ancestor of a particular branch). There may have been a biochemical evolution preceding the formation of the first cellular LUCA with RNA and protein associations, RNA and DNA associations and virus-like sequences of nucleic acids.

The three domains have produced six million different genes. Molecular biologists have identified 355 genes that all cellular organisms share in common. This is possibly the genome of the LUCA of all living cellular organisms. Whether such a synthetic DNA chromosome could be inserted into a bacterial or archaeal cell or even a eukaryotic cell whose own DNA has been removed has not yet been attempted. It may not work because we know little about the non-DNA components of bacterial or archaeal cells.

Biologists have known for some time that a nucleus of a distant species (e.g., a frog) placed in a mouse egg whose nucleus has been removed will not divide or produce a living organism. But two closely related species (like algae of the genus Acetabularia) can develop after swapping nuclei. In such cases the growing organism with the donated nucleus resembles the features of the nuclear donor.

There is a LUCA for the first primate branch with the genus Homo. We are described as Homo sapiens. Anthropologists and paleontologists studying fossil human remains have worked out the twigs of the branch we identify as the genus Homo. Neanderthals and Denisovans (about 500,000 years ago) are the two most recent branches that preceded the origins of H. sapiens (about 160,000 years ago). Most humans have a small percentage of Neanderthal or Denisovan genes. Fossils of Homo erectus (about 1.8 million years ago) or Homo habilis (about 2.8 million years ago) are much older than the recent three species of Homo. Those fossils do not have DNA that can be extracted from teeth.

A second objective of studying LUCA’s 355 genes will be the identification of each gene’s function. That will tell biologists what it is that makes these genes essential in all cellular organisms.

I can think of a third important consequence of studying LUCA. There are millions of different viruses on Earth, especially in the oceans. If cellularity arose from clusters of viruses, the genes of the mother of all LUCAs may be scattered among some of those viruses and give biologists insights into the step-by-step formation of that first LUCA cell.

In Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, “The Mikado,” one character boasts of tracing his ancestors to a primordial bit of protoplasm. The genome of LUCA might become an unexpected example where science imitates art.

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