(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

A simple glass milk bottle, the so-called fly bottle, that common and unglamorous tool of many research biologists, has been the scene of some of the most significant discoveries of the twentieth century in genetics and molecular biology. Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior recounts the story of the work of many scientists but especially that of Seymour Benzer, who did basic research using genetic dissection, an approach that he “had started . . . with single genes . . . working up to behavior” in a fly room at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He invented the “countercurrent machine,” a panpipe arrangement of nesting test tubes that would allow the flies to sort themselves according to the persistence of their attraction to light, a behavior that made Drosophila “the perfect creatures with which to found a new science, an atomic theory of behavior.” This approach revealed the connection between genes and behavior and, along with the work of scores of his students and fellow scientists, established the science of molecular biology, one of the two most important sciences of the twentieth century.

Benzer was one of a handful of scientists who began to look seriously at the question, what are the connections, the physical connections, between genes and behavior? Jonathan Weiner crisply narrates the stories of Benzer and a host of other biologists, a number of whom, like Francis Crick and Benzer himself, began their scientific careers as physicists. Their work has brought molecular biology to the point at which the Human Genome Project is nearly complete and the promise (or threat) of determining the behavioral and physical traits of nearly any—perhaps all—species is a reality.

Weiner’s book traces the development of molecular biology from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present in a narrative packed with good science; fascinating personal profiles of scientists, students, and scholar-adventurers; and stories of triumph and failure. Weiner is an excellent scientific writer, splendidly informed and fully engaged in his topic. To research this topic he interviewed more than 150 scientists, participated in seminars at Princeton University, and read hundreds of papers published by the men and women who created molecular biology. Led by James D. Watson, Francis Crick, and Seymour Benzer, biologists working variously withE. coli, Drosophila, nematodes, and birds sought to answer basic questions about an organism’s behavior and whether instinct was actually hardwired at the level of the gene or, even more specifically, at the level of the atom.

The story of the invention of molecular biology, the discovery of the gene, and the proof of the connection between behavior and genetic anatomy is, throughout, the story of people. One of the facets of this book that is especially appealing is the reiterated instances of the close mentoring bond that existed between and among so many of the scientists and their students. Thomas Hunt Morgan’s student, Alfred Sturtevant, created the first genetic map and followed Morgan from Columbia University to Caltech; Max Delbrück’s student Salvador Luria worked on bacteriophage. By 1953, when workers had worked out a nearly complete map of the phage chromosome, Benzer, still nominally a physicist at Purdue University, created a brilliant experiment in which he infected a plate of bacteria with two strains of the defective r mutants of the phage virus, splitting the rII and leading to “the explosions of genetic mapping and genetic engineering that now dominate biology.” By the summer of 1956 he had created from his replications of this simple but elegant experiment a version of the code of codes, a gene map of the fine structure of the rIIregion of a phage chromosome. He kept the map rolled up like a Torah scroll and would dramatically unroll it at conference presentations. It is this mapping that has grown to the nearly finished Human Genome Project, the Manhattan Project of biology.

Benzer’s work with phage kept him busy for ten years before he became bored and looked for some new interest to catch his fancy. That turned out to be his search for the “atoms of behavior,” the connection of the molecules of the gene to personality, the traits of character and instinct. How is behavior inherited? To answer this question he turned to reading everything he could find about the inheritance of behavior, as did his friends Sidney Brenner, Gunther Stent, and Delbrück, who wanted “to take instincts apart the way Benzer had taken apart the gene.”

Benzer in...

(The entire section is 1906 words.)