Easy to warm to cool, solitary gene genius

The Tangled Field
August 17, 2001

In the early 1980s, when I was a postdoctoral researcher at Brandeis University, near Boston, I remember considerable excitement being generated by the arrival of a distinguished visiting speaker, Barbara McClintock, who was to receive the prestigious Rosenstiel award. At the time I was casting off my training as a psychologist and embracing the more rigorous discipline of (fruit fly) genetics. As I was a relative novice in this area, I had no idea who our eminent visitor was so I asked my boss a little more about her. Apparently, she was the geneticist who discovered transposable genetic elements, the genes that jumped around chromosomes.

However, her work was not generally understood or accepted for many years after her discovery, which was in the late 1940s and early 1950s. She had been largely forgotten until 30 years later, when a new generation of biologists began to describe these "jumping genes" in molecular terms, in several organisms including yeast, maize and flies. Even I knew this was important, so I turned up for her talk. The speaker was a tiny, frail-looking woman, of about 80 years of age. I sat through an hour or so of maize genetics and "controlling elements" ending up, I am sorry to say, little wiser than I was before.

For years I have carried this idea, as have many others, that McClintock was another Mendel, unappreciated for at least a generation. Her contribution to genetics was finally recognised in 1983 when she became only the third woman to win an unshared Nobel prize in science.

The Tangled Field , by Nathaniel Comfort, dissects the myth that grew around this complex, prickly, isolated but brilliant woman. Was she really the free-thinking scientific maverick who was ignored by her largely male peers and was later to become a feminist icon? Comfort's thought-provoking book argues to the contrary, and suggests that McClintock, probably unconsciously, contributed to this iconoclastic view of herself. Was she ignored? Not really. She was the third woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1944, at the relatively tender age of 42. This was on the basis of 20 years of fundamental discoveries in the cytogenetics of maize, and before she had published any of her work on "controlling elements".

Even afterwards it was clear that the world of genetics accepted the idea that in maize, genes could transpose themselves from one chromosome to another. The irony was that McClintock was not so much interested in the phenomenon of "jumping genes", but in how these genes might be controlling the development of the organism. So for her, the Nobel prize, welcome as it must have been, had missed the point and had rewarded her for something that she did not consider her most important contribution.

Her interpretation of controlling elements was to fall on deaf ears for another decade. In 1960, when Francois Jacob and Jacques Monod elaborated the operon, and how a gene could be controlled by a repressor molecule, the analogy with McClintock's controlling elements, although lost on these authors, was striking. However, it was not until the 1980s that McClintock's findings were revised in molecular terms, which for many clarified the impenetrability of her classic papers.

Comfort's scholarly book is written with authority and describes the relationship of McClintock with the "who's who" of the genetics world. I could not put the book down, and felt by the end of it that I understood this fascinating and mysterious figure a little better. I also could not help but feel sad for her, because, for all the accolades and success, she was a lonely woman who did not form relationships easily. She worked largely by herself because she did not trust anyone to be as fastidious with her beloved plants. She performed small experiments on her field in Cold Spring Harbor because she simply did not have the (wo)manpower to do large experiments. However, her solitude and freedom, not only from the routine rigours of family life, but also from teaching and administration (she spent most of her career on research fellowships), allowed her to focus on seemingly intractable problems that she solved with what can only be described as inductive genius.

She is also an object lesson for today - small science is beautiful science, something that has been lost in these days of the programme grant and the Medical Research Council cooperative. I wonder whether she would even have obtained a research grant in today's climate?

This book is not for the uninitiated: a grasp of genetics beyond the first-year undergraduate level is required to appreciate it fully. I had to reread several sections before I grasped the intricacies of maize genetics. This is not your simple Mendelian smooth-versus-wrinkled-peas story. Nevertheless, I warmed to McClintock's difficult personality, and I would recommend this book to my students, not only as a history lesson for all aspiring geneticists, but also as an account of the personal strengths and weaknesses of a 20th-century scientific genius.

Charalambos P. Kyriacou is head of genetics, University of Leicester.

The Tangled Field: Barbara McClintock's Search for the Patterns of Genetic Control

Author - Nathaniel C. Comfort
ISBN - 0 674 00456 6
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £25.95
Pages - 322

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