Friday 3 May 2013

Francois Jacob - gone.

Francois Jacob was one of the great scientists of the 20th century, and a huge hero of mine. He was awarded the 1965 Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology for carrying out an elegant series of experiments which explained how bacteria (and by extension us) control gene 'expression'.  How, in other words, the information in our DNA is mobilised to modify the biochemical machinery of the cell to achieve something/everything useful.  He thus helped articulate the Central Dogma (which like all Dogmas has utility but is flawed in its monolithic certainty):  DNA makes RNA; RNA makes protein; and protein makes everything else.  That statement hopefully becomes clearer to non-scientists if I add the gloss that all enzymes are proteins and all biochemical activity goes much much more precisely and efficiently if enzymes are involved.  The Nobel prize was awarded to Jacob and his lab-partner Jacques Monod and their boss Andre Lwoff, they all worked in the Institute Pasteur that teeming hugger-mugger incubator of Francophone brilliance in the middle of Paris.  They worked out how E.coli controlled the metabolism of the milk sugar lactose and the explanation 'invented' or discovered the lac operon which has a chapter to itself in every genetics textbook since.  The E.coli on which they worked was isolated from a stool sample contributed by Lwoff - not a lot of people know that.

Jacques Monod went on to write an influential book which was translated in to English as Chance and Necessity. For years I had a first English edition with its MC Escher inspired cover-design.  I read it when I was 17 and it was really too dense and philosophical for me but I sort of twigged that it was deterministic and materialist and it curtly dismissed any need for reasons for our existence. Confused as I was at the time: an wanna-be atheist reading Augustine's City of God while trying to find the zen of Akira Kurosawa's films (dang! I'm confused now even thinking about what I was at back then) - I knew Monod wasn't for me.

A few years later I encountered The Possible and The Actual, Francois Jacob's antidote to Chance and Necessity.  Now that book sang to me: short, crystal-clear,  clever, simple.  Here Jacob brought to Anglophone science the quintessentially French concept of bricolage, haltingly translated as "tinkering".  Every village and every neighbourhood in France has (or prolly had) its bricoleur: the Mr Fixit, the handyman, the jacques-of-all-trades who can re-purpose a broken washing-machine as a chicken-coop and never throws anything away.  Nature is just like that, she doesn't invent a wing from whole cloth, she takes an existing running/grasping limb and over a few hundred generations turns it into a flapping/flying appendage.  It works at a  molecular level too (well everything works at a molecular level): an enzyme that can process lactose has an accident, or two, or three, and ka-ching! it is able to process maltose as well or maybe process maltose only.

And Jacob was a war hero, escaping from France on the last boat from Bayonne and joining the Free French in England.  Later on he was blown to fritters by a bomb and spent months having fragments of shrapnel removed from his right side.  That put paid to his career as a surgeon and so he went to the Pasteur to do fundamental research instead.
The rest is history and so, since 20th April 2013, is Professor Jacob - quel type merveilleux.

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