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Relating genes to function
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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I thought that there were two steps in this process. And the two steps I defined in a paper, which I wrote at the time, much later, but they had been defined earlier, and that is you ask the question: how do you build nervous systems? That's one question, and that's what the genes do. And then you ask: how do these nervous systems work to generate behaviour? And the important idea there is exactly the one that we had in molecular biology. You can't understand how this… how the gene corresponds to the phenotype without understanding the paradigm of construction between them, the construction paradigm. Once you understand that phage is put together by molecules into sub-assemblies and these sub-assemblies are glued together to make a phage, you can then understand how the gene, the genetic, the genes correspond to this geometrical structure. And so the same must be true of these higher organisms. And that you then separate the construction issue, the developmental issue, the building issue, from that of function, and the two are then interlocked, because clearly what organisms do is an output from the machines they have to do things with. What machines they have to do things is an output of their genes. So I think that made a clarification and showed that from a genetic point of view the most important question, at least for me, was: how do genes build nervous systems? And that is why I have… I just could not understand how all these people that have this endless argument in the field of behavioural genetics, which was very popular in the early '60s. And there were arguments about genes and intelligence, for example, which aroused tremendous anger of people saying it's just impossible that genes specify intelligence. And what you'd have to do, according to my view, is you'd have to show what is the machine inside the organism that generates intelligence and how do genes affect it? And until you have satisfied that… so that means you have to understand how people display intelligence, and that's one issue, and then you can go to the genes, and of course genes will affect it in the sense that they… they are needed to build your brain – you can't get rid of them, because if you don't have any genes you don't exist, so in that sense you have to do this. And that just means it's not a question of philosophy or belief or any… it's just a question of what it is. And of course you can see that the whole constraint of this is everything has had to be produced by evolution. Intelligence has had to be produced by evolution. Presumably unintelligent people in the early days didn't survive; they couldn't cope with the environment so they were eliminated. And once everything comes to us through this sieve, through this filter, and that filter has to work with genes, then you can see how all of these things are interrelated. And the one thing we can do in a laboratory is to dissect these… separate all these issues and define them in this way. The nematode seemed to be the best way of doing this, and I therefore started what is now known as the C. elegans Project.

South African Sydney Brenner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. His joint discovery of messenger RNA, and, in more recent years, his development of gene cloning, sequencing and manipulation techniques along with his work for the Human Genome Project have led to his standing as a pioneer in the field of genetics and molecular biology.

Listeners: Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London. His research interests are in the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. He was originally trained as a civil engineer in South Africa but changed to research in cell biology at King's College, London in 1955. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the CBE in 1990. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999. He has presented science on both radio and TV and for five years was Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science.

 

 


Listen to Lewis Wolpert at Web of Stories

 

 

Tags: Nervous system, gene, molecular biology, phenotype, genotype, phage, geometrical structure, intelligence, controversy, evolution, C. elegans

Duration: 4 minutes, 14 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 24 January 2008