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Sol Spiegelman's quantitative evolution experiments


Evolution experiments
Manfred Eigen Scientist
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One could say you can't do any experiment which exceeds the lifetime of a PhD student. But that was our surprise... if you choose the right conditions you can do it. You can do it even in days or weeks... days and hours, depending on what you are... you are never trying to evolve any living creature. What you try is you ask very special questions, which are key points in evolution, and those experiments can be easily done.

[Q] Who was the first to do evolution experiments?

Yes.. now, we were... came in... it was my friend Sol Spiegelman who really was a pioneer in doing the first experiments... cell-free evolution.

[Q] But he made it more on a qualitative level, I understood.

That's not... I wouldn't call it qualitative. He did already quantitative measurements, but at that time there was no theory yet and he didn't choose the best possible conditions because he couldn't know about certain... For instance, he used an enzyme which he isolated from a bacterial virus, Q-beta virus, and that enzyme is able in a cell-free solution to replicate nucleic acid so he can do wonderful experiments on replication of nucleic acids. But he didn't know about error threshold. So he did not use a whole phage Q-beta and many of these quantitative experiments that he rather used relatively short nucleic acid strengths, let's say 200 base... they have 200 bases. The true virus, Q-beta, has 4600 or over 4000 such pairs and its error rate, its mutation rate, is adapted to this length, in other words it is just at the error threshold for this long strand. Now using only these short strands of 200 bases means that he is much too precise, so evolution is slow, he makes too few errors. And therefore what he could show were principle things, but quantitatively one could do much better.

[Q] But nevertheless he is the pioneer of evolution experiments.

Yes. One of the problems in evolution is, as you know, the natural process went on over many, many years, so you want to have a indefinite...

[Q] Perpetual...?

... perpetuation of evolution, but since the substances grow you will soon have populated everything.

Nobel Prize winning German biophysical chemist, Manfred Eigen (1927-2019), was best known for his work on fast chemical reactions and his development of ways to accurately measure these reactions down to the nearest billionth of a second. He published over 100 papers with topics ranging from hydrogen bridges of nucleic acids to the storage of information in the central nervous system.

Listeners: Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitch

Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch is the eldest daughter of the Austrian physicist Klaus Osatitsch, an internationally renowned expert in gas dynamics, and his wife Hedwig Oswatitsch-Klabinus. She was born in the German university town of Göttingen where her father worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Aerodynamics under Ludwig Prandtl. After World War II she was educated in Stockholm, Sweden, where her father was then a research scientist and lecturer at the Royal Institute of Technology.

In 1961 Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch enrolled in Chemistry at the Technical University of Vienna where she received her PhD in 1969 with a dissertation on "Fast complex reactions of alkali ions with biological membrane carriers". The experimental work for her thesis was carried out at the Max Planck Institute for Physical Chemistry in Göttingen under Manfred Eigen.

From 1971 to the present Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch has been working as a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen in the Department of Chemical Kinetics which is headed by Manfred Eigen. Her interest was first focused on an application of relaxation techniques to the study of fast biological reactions. Thereafter, she engaged in theoretical studies on molecular evolution and developed game models for representing the underlying chemical proceses. Together with Manfred Eigen she wrote the widely noted book, "Laws of the Game" (Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 1981 and Princeton University Press, 1993). Her more recent studies were concerned with comparative sequence analysis of nucleic acids in order to find out the age of the genetic code and the time course of the early evolution of life. For the last decade she has been successfully establishing industrial applications in the field of evolutionary biotechnology.

Tags: Evolution, evolution experiments, cell-free evolution, bacterial virus, Q-beta virus, nucleic acid, replication, error threshold, Sol Spiegelman

Duration: 3 minutes, 38 seconds

Date story recorded: July 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008