Re: Time, Love, Memory

Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest For The Origin of Behavior, by Jonathan Weiner is so engrossing, I nearly missed my stop. The biologist in the subtitle is Seymour Benzer. As he worked at Caltech,  it was weird for me to read about him and familiar things–Tech offices, the jacarandas–when I don’t remember hearing of him while I was there. But then, as Weiner notes, Benzer was a modest, brilliant man who wasn’t interested in being famous.

While Benzer is the focus, there’s a whole cloud of other scientists working on the problem of how genes encode behavior. The early chapters describe how many physicists came into molecular biology, led by Max Delbrück and inspired by Schrödinger’s speculations in What is Life?. The main part of the book discusses how Benzer found genes affecting our sense of time, our ability to remember, and the ways we woo.

Time refers to the mechanisms of circadian rhythm, which is nearly as old as life itself. Even plants and fungi rest and grow depending on the time of day. They find several gears of the clock, but we’re still nowhere near understanding how it works. Much like how before Crick and Watson we knew there were genes but not what they are, we now know that our daily rhythms are encoded in our genes, but not the full mechanism.

Love refers more to courtship behaviors. There are a lot of these. Various genes control gender selection, how sex develops in the embryo, the various courtship behaviors, or lack thereof. Here the behaviors of the fruit flies seemed all so familiar: the males approaching the females, extending a buzzing wing to sing to their ladies, the meeting of probisci in a kiss(!). The chaining conga line of fruitless mutants suggested an all-night party at a gay bar.

Memory refers to the genes that affect learning. Once they find out what sort of stimuli flies would respond to (smell), it turns out that fruit flies can learn and remember. And they identify genes that affect how well an organism retains a memory.

Toward the end, as more gene mapping is done with more organisms, variants of the same gene keep turning up among all the research organisms: mice, fruit flies, humans, and more. You really get the sense of how much all life is handed the same tool kit, and how flexibly that kit enables a broad range of solutions.

It leaves me respecting the fruit flies in the worm bin a little more.


2 thoughts on “Re: Time, Love, Memory

  1. The embryology class was divided into two parts: the first part was all about early embryology and focused mainly on the example organism sea urchin. I’ve forgotten who the professor was, but I remember he was involved in a scandal a few years later involving a female grad student. The professor came to class wearing a studded motorcycle jacket and looked like he’d just gotten off a Harley (without using a helmet) and would be going back to it immediately after class. If you’d taken the class, the theme was maternal contribution to the early embryo, and how the maternal mRNAs weren’t equally scattered about the zygote, and how this unequal distribution led to later cell line determination.

    The second part was taught by Seymour Benzer. If you do a google image search for him, yes, that’s what he looked like, although my impression was that he was a little more robust, had a little more hair (but not much) and the hair was black. He came to class wearing a lab coat, as if he’d just come from his lab, and would be going back to it immediately after class. In his part of the class, he discussed what happened in the pupal phase of the fruit fly. Sadly, I remember pretty much nothing of this class.

    Give me twenty minutes, I’ll give you a college education. Mine, what I remember of it.

    Doggone, I didn’t set this to music, and I don’t have a “for further reading.”

    How about we were merely freshmen?

    And read:
    The Fourth R
    by George O. Smith
    The book centers around an invention called the “cerebrostyle” which can be used to copy knowledge directly to the brain. I tell you, in college, I often wished for such a device (especially in the Physical Chemistry course).

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