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Working with Tracy Sonneborn


Working on genetics; Indiana and Tracy Sonneborn
Avrion Mitchison Scientist
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There was a feeling in genetics in the- in that time, at the end of the 1950s, sorry, at the end of the 1940s and the beginning, the early 1950s, that Mendelian genetics was not enough. There was something else going on. And the feeling about that was pretty muddled. Peter Medawar was very interested in cellular inheritance, most notably in the skin, where he had shown, he with his colleagues, had shown that if you take the different components of the surface there of the skin, the epidermis, and transplant them to another site on the body, if you took, for example, the cornea and put it onto the flank skin, or sole of foot and put it onto flank, it would continue to be- manifest its sole of foot or corneal properties and it remained transparent. And nowadays that is actually quite commonplace and it's accepted as being due to the control of gene expression which is- turns out to be heritable over long periods of time. I was so thrilled by that work that I transplanted a little piece of sole of foot there, and it's still there, just detectable, whatever it is now, 50 years later. But I didn't- I wasn't in the nature of an experiment. I don't know what it was. I didn't- I didn't make much of a distinction between heroic actions calculated to build you up in the eyes of your boss and a real scientific experiment. So, what else could there be? Could there be inheritance in cells outside the nucleus and Peter Medawar wrote, and I co-signed, I don't know if it's in my CV, but if I wasn't actually a co-signer, I think I was- no. I think he acknowledged the help of his students- his undergraduate students there, so maybe it's not there, on this topic. So when Watson said, Jim Watson said, why not try Indiana, and what about Tracy Sonneborn, he's an extremely nice guy and interested in alternatives to Mendelian inheritance, that all figured. I also had, at the back of my mind, that it would be- that I was interested in an idea that my uncle had put forward about the inheritance of paramecium in which that concerns senescence. Like other protozoa, some paramecia, not all of them, I think most paramecia but not all protozoa, have a life cycle where they go through binary fissions for a month or two in the case of paramecium, more than that, two or three months, and at the end of that they die unless they go through sex and the sex could be with other paramecia, or it can be with themselves, they can- they can undergo myosis, and gametes can fuse all inside the same organism. And Jack had suggested- he made millions of interesting suggestions that that might be because mutations accumulated in the macronucleus, and that eventually kills the organism unless it replaced its macronucleus. So- so that all seemed fine. Tracy Sonneborn was a wonderful man. I don't know how he had the patience to put up with me, because for the first six months, I was absolutely miserable in Indiana, simply because it wasn't Oxford, and particularly his dear wife, Ruth. She found a very- a lovely girl, one of the Benesh family. I think she might have been the daughter of the President of Czechoslovakia who'd been deposed by the Nazis, and I remember meeting her in her house and just being- not rising to the occasion. I thought she was very attractive, but could I do anything about it, no I couldn't. But at any rate because what I was doing was looking after these cultures of paramecium and making sure they didn't have sex with themselves. You have to check on them every day, stain a few of them, and you can see if they- if they did it they were discarded, and then the other ones developed, did senesce. And to cut a long story short, I was able to satisfy myself that it wasn't- the problem was not as the organism old, it wasn't that they accumulated mutations in the macronucleus, because they died as soon as they started to reorganise their micronuclei which were making the gametes. Myosis was some kind of- something too difficult for an old cell to cope with. I never knew anything about the biochemistry, but that's just a piece of biology and I spent a year doing that.

Avrion Mitchison, the British zoologist, is currently Professor Emeritus at University College London and is best known for his work demonstrating the role of lymphocytes in tumour rejection and for the separate and cooperative roles of T- and B-lymphocytes in this and other processes.

Listeners: Martin Raff

Martin Raff is a Canadian-born neurologist and research biologist who has made important contributions to immunology and cell development. He has a special interest in apoptosis, the phenomenon of cell death.



Listen to Martin Raff at Web of Stories



Duration: 6 minutes, 1 second

Date story recorded: June 2004

Date story went live: 24 January 2008