Cut And Paste

Before 1970, E. coli had no role in biotechnology. It does not naturally produce penicillin or any other precious molecule. It does not turn barley into beer. Most scientists who studied E. coli before 1970 did so to understand how life works, not to learn how to make a profit. They learned a great deal about how E. coli uses genes to build proteins, how those genes are switched on and off, how its proteins help make its life possible. But in order to learn how E. coli lives, they had to build...

It Is Confusion

In the 1970s, genetically engineered E. coli frightened people not just with its potential risks. It touched something deeper a feeling that genetic engineering is something humans were simply not meant to do. Genetic engineering would disrupt the order of nature, the result of billions of years of evolution. Shuttling genes or other biological material from species to species would blur barriers that had been established long before humans existed, threatening to tear down the very tree of...

The Unity Of Life

Escherich originally dubbed his bacteria Bacterium coli communis a common bacterium of the colon. In 1918, seven years after Escherich's death, scientists renamed it in his honor. By the time it got a new name, it had taken on a new life. Microbiologists were beginning to rear it by the billions in their laboratories. In the early 1900s, many scientists were pulling cells apart to see what they were made of, to figure out how they turned raw material into living matter. Some scientists studied...

Death And Kindness The Anarchist Prince

CHARLES DARWIN WAS BURIED DURING a grand funeral in Westminster Abbey in 1882. Biologists were soon fighting over his legacy. In 1888, the British zoologist Thomas Huxley published a shocking essay, Struggle for Existence and Its Bearing upon Man. In it he summoned up an ugly picture of nature as a combat of all against all. The animal world is on about the same level as the gladiator's show, he wrote. The creatures are fairly well-treated, and set to fight whereby the strongest, the swiftest,...

The System Turning On The Gene

ONE DAY IN JULY 1958, Fran ois Jacob squirmed in a Paris movie theater. His wife, Lise, could tell that an idea was struggling to come out. The two of them walked out of the theater and headed for home. I think I've just thought up something important, Fran ois said to Lise. Her husband believed, as he later wrote, that he had reached the very essence of things. He had gotten a glimpse of how genes work together to make life possible. Jacob had been hoping for a moment like this for a long...

Networks Under Construction

In order to build a flagellum, E. coli does not simply churn out all the proteins in a blind rush. It controls the construction with a sophisticated network of genes. Only when it detects signs of stress does it switch on the flagella-building genes, and it uses a noise filter to avoid false alarms. It turns the genes on step by step as it gradually builds up the flagellum, then it turns them off. And like the flagellum, E. coli's control networks have an ancient history of their own. In 2006,...

Slot Machines And Velvet Stamps

One night in 1942 in Bloomington, Indiana, an Italian refugee sat in a country club, teasing a friend at a slot machine. The refugee was named Salvador Luria. He had trained as a doctor in Turin, but when he discovered viruses and bacteria he abandoned his medical career for research. During World War II he fled Italy for Paris, where he joined the scientists at the Pasteur Institute studying E. coli and its viruses. As the Germans closed in on Paris, Luria fled again, this time to New York. In...

Living Circuits

To an engineer, a circuit is an arrangement of wires, resistors, and other parts, all laid out to produce an output from an input. Circuits in a Geiger counter create a crackle when they detect radioactivity. A room is cast in darkness when a light switch is turned off. Genes operate according to a similar logic. A genetic circuit has its own inputs and outputs. The lac operon works only if it receives two inputs a signal that E. coli has run out of glucose and another signal that there's...

Return Of Frankensteins Microbe

In May 2006, synthetic biologists met in Berkeley, California, for their second international meeting. Along with the standard research talks, they set aside time to draft a code of conduct. The day before, thirty-five organizations representing, among others, environmentalists, social activists, and biological warfare experts released an open letter urging that the biologists withdraw the code. They should join a public debate about synthetic biology instead and be ready to submit to...

Darwin At The Drugstore Life Against Life

THE BACTERIA IN THE DISH on my desk are a long way from home. Their ancestors left the body of a diphtheria patient in California eighty-five years ago and have never returned to another human gut. They were transported into another dimension of flasks and freezers, centrifuges and X-rays. These laboratory creatures have enjoyed a strange comfort, gorging themselves on amino acids and sugar. And over hundreds of thousands of generations they have evolved. They have become fast breeders and have...

Strength In Numbers

In the 1950s, some scientists explained cooperation in animals with an idea that came to be known as group selection. They argued that a large group of unrelated animals could outcompete another group, just as individuals outcompete other individuals. The adaptations that allow some groups to outreproduce other groups should become more common over time. Group selection could produce traits and behaviors that benefit the many, not the few. In some bird colonies, for example, only a third of the...

The Tangled Bank

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. Darwin did not believe that he could see the production of...

Death Comes To

That's not to say it was invulnerable. The bacteria can die in all sorts of ways devoured by protozoans, starved for years in a famine, or ripped open like a water balloon by the prick of a colicin needle. But decades of gazing at E. coli left scientists convinced that death is not inevitable. Left to its own devices, E. coli remained eternally young. Here was one way, at least, in which E. coli was fundamentally different from us. Our bodies slide into decay...

Vive La Diffrence

I don't understand why some people eat snails. I can't say for sure why I dislike them, but I can certainly think up a few stories. Maybe I have a certain kind of sensor on the cells of my tongue that goes into a spasm of dismay. Or maybe some network of neurons in my brain associates the taste of snails with some awful memory from my distant past. Or maybe I simply never had the opportunity to come to love snails because I grew up eating pizza and hamburgers and...

Three The System

IT WOULD TAKE YEARS OF RESEARCH M ller-Hill, 1996. IN ANIMALS LIKE OURSELVES Ben-Shahar et al., 2006. SCIENTISTS HAVE CONTINUED TO PAY CLOSE ATTENTION Alon, 2007. IT ACTS AS A NOISE FILTER Kalir, Mangan, and Alon, 2005. FEED-FORWARD LOOPS ARE UNUSUALLY COMMON IN NATURE Milo et al., 2002. HE AND HIS COLLEAGUES BEGAN TO ANALYZE ITS HEAT-SHOCK PROTEINS Kurata et al., 2006. BERNHARD PALSSON, A BIOLOGIST AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SAN DIEGO Feist et al., 2007. WHY DOES IT CHOOSE AMONG THE BEST...

Togetherness

In 2003, Jeffry Stock and his colleagues at Princeton University put E. coli in a maze. The maze, which measured less than a hundredth of an inch on each side, had walls of plastic and a roof of glass. The scientists submerged it in water and then injected E. coli into the entrance. The bacteria began to spin their flagella and swim. Stock's team had added a gene for a glowing protein to each E. coli so they could follow their trail as the microbes wandered through the labyrinth. At first the...