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A Guided Tour of the Living Cell


The Rockefeller Christmas Lectures
Christian de Duve Scientist
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Now, we have arrived to what I sometimes call the... my latest... probably my last incarnation, unless the Buddhists are right. Started like many things in my little life: more or less accidentally. In 1976 I was invited, at Rockefeller, to give what was called at that time, the Christmas lectures – now they're called the Alfred E Mirsky Lectures because he was the one who initiated them. But they were called the Christmas lectures because they were copied from something Faraday has started at Royal Society in London in the 19th Century and the Christmas lectures at Rockefeller were a series of four lectures that were given at Christmas time to a selected... a very selected audience of 550 – that's the number of seats in the auditorium, 550 high school students, selected in the whole New York area. Selected by their teachers so they were really a choice group – they were a very interesting audience. And so in 1976 I was invited to give this series of lectures, and since I was going to talk to youngsters I invented the title of A Guided Tour of the Living Cell and, in a way, it was fun. I told them, ‘Well, you have to blow up the cell to the dimensions of this auditorium or yourself, you have to... to decrease your size to the size of a bacterium, you do one or you do the other, but since we're going to visit a watery medium you better put some scuba gear and you're going to be cytonauts’, you know; it was all of a game – quite funny. But to prepare these lectures I had, of course, to... to go beyond mitochondria, lysosomes and peroxisomes, which were the only parts of the cell I had any personal acquaintance with. I knew something about the endoplasmic reticulum, about the Golgi because that was the area in which George Palade had been working, but I knew much less about the nucleus, chromosomes, mitoses; there was little I knew about that. Cytoskeleton I knew very little about, so I had to do a little reading, but of course, four one hour lectures don't need very detailed information. So, anyway, it was a lot of fun and I found youngsters extremely stimulating. They asked very intelligent questions.

Belgian biochemist Christian de Duve (1917-2013) was best known for his work on understanding and categorising subcellular organelles. He won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1974 for his joint discovery of lysosomes, the subcellular organelles that digest macromolecules and deal with ingested bacteria.

Listeners: Peter Newmark

Peter Newmark has recently retired as Editorial Director of BioMed Central Ltd, the Open Access journal publisher. He obtained a D. Phil. from Oxford University and was originally a research biochemist at St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical School in London, but left research to become Biology Editor and then Deputy Editor of the journal Nature. He then became Managing Director of Current Biology Ltd, where he started a series of Current Opinion journals, and was founding Editor of the journal Current Biology. Subsequently he was Editorial Director for Elsevier Science London, before joining BioMed Central Ltd.

Tags: 1976, A Guided Tour of the Living Cell, Rockefeller Institute, Alfred E Mirsky, George Palade

Duration: 3 minutes, 23 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008