Lords of the Fly: Drosophila Genetics and the Experimental Life Paperback – May 2 1994
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<I>Journal of Modern History
Top Customer Reviews
The book describes how the fruitfly, through 'founder effects,' came to dominate the world of genetics. The fly was easy to maintain, inexpensive to work with, and compliant with the university calendar (willing to take the summer off from research if the students and professors insisted). The organism was not particularly complicated physiologically, and it had a relatively short life span. Meaning that many generations of mutant flies could be analyzed in a single university semester.
For almost a century the Drosophilists have formed a tiny, close, and cooperative family within the larger scientific community, and this family is discussed with affection in this book. Speaking from personal experience I can say that Drosophilists are unlike any other group in the greater scientific community. They truly are a family.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The book describes how the fruitfly, through `founder effects,' came to dominate the world of genetics. The fly was easy to maintain, inexpensive to work with, and compliant with the university calendar (willing to take the summer off from research if the students and professors insisted). The organism was not particularly complicated physiologically, and it had a relatively short life span. Meaning that many generations of mutant flies could be analyzed in a single university semester.
For almost a century the Drosophilists have formed a tiny, close, and cooperative family within the larger scientific community, and this family is discussed with affection in this book. Speaking from personal experience I can say that Drosophilists are unlike any other group in the greater scientific community. They truly are a family. They all know each other personally (more or less), are willing to exchange ideas and materials readily and without non-disclosure agreements signed in triplicate by lawyers (a concept totally alien to the cut-throat fields of medicine, pharmacology, immunology, physiology etc.), and are willing to give credit where credit is due without petty jealousy or bruised egos (again, an alien concept to most other branches of science). After all, just how seriously CAN you take yourself when you are working with FRUITFLIES for a living? It has also been my experience that Drosophilists have the smallest egos, and the largest funnybones in the entire scientific community. This is evidenced by names they frequently give to the genetic mutations they uncover. ("bus driver" for a mutation that causes fly larvae to move slowly and meander. "cheap date" for a mutation that makes flies more susceptible to the effects of alcohol. A far cry from medical researchers, commanding million dollar research budgets, shamelessly naming genetic syndromes after themselves!) The unique and generous nature of this family is discussed in the book. Now that Drosophila has become a model organism, being used and patented by multinational pharmaceutical companies, I fear that the days of the Drosophila family as we have come to know it are numbered. But I am glad that somebody has documented how things used to be, and how wonderful they were.
For most of us who learned about Drosophila genetics from cold, sterile and boring texts this book is a refreshing change! It brings the early days of Drosophila genetics to a personal level. The book is very entertaining, provocative, and chocked full of photographs and diagrams. It is good light reading, and I highly recommend it for all Drosophilists (and other biologists and scientists) who are interested in the history and origins of their profession.
Overall, Robert E. Kohler maintains three main themes throughout the book: (1) biological description and experimental evolution of Drosophila, (2) professional and social life of drosophilists, and (3) coevolving relationship between the fly and fly experts. Drosophila is first presented to the reader as an organism that almost went unnoticed because it was easily available, cheap, and did not require high maintenance. Ironically, these are the same qualifications that make Drosophila a great "model organism". Nonetheless, even though not an organism of choice, Drosophila entered the world of genetics as a last resort but stayed and reshaped experimental world of science.
Constructing Drosophila section may remind a biology student of genetics class lecture, at times too in detail. For example, Kohler takes the reader through the manual calculations of gene mapping. Although covered in great length, the information is refreshing, as it is not always taught in present day university classes. Somehow Kohler manages to combine dense scientific material with anecdotes, making this book an easy read. One cannot help but imagine drosophilists sitting in a laboratory, tediously inspecting flies, later to find out that some of which could simply be `extreme forms of natural variation of the wild types.'
Speaking of extreme forms and variations. Besides the main players, one specific drosophilist comes to mind when thinking of the personal lives when it comes to the scientists involved in drosophila projects. This person is Calvin Bridges. According to Kohler, in personal life, Bridges was known for his `extraordinary beauty' and scandal with an Indian "princes". As a result of this scandal, Bridges was disqualified for an academic position. As it turns out, not all drosophists spend all hours in a lab looking for mutants. Interestingly enough, Bridges was the drosophilist who was able to find close to seventy five percent of all mutants documented.
It is curious to read about the different personalities of the fly scientists. Unlike the team of scientists responsible for discovery of insulin, drosophilists are portrayed as easy-going, very logical, and fair to one another. In fact, fly scientists are portrayed so logical that they even implemented a system that helps one determine who should be given credit for work. Yet, at other times, when it comes to giving credit, Kohler describes what he calls `an internal boundary' of gender . According to documents found, besides the three female scientists, most of the women working in the laboratory were volunteers, or wives of the scientists. Yet, the women do not appear in laboratory photographs and are not acknowledged in published papers.
Overall, this book is very engaging easy to follow. The fact that many of the discoveries take place in Woods Hole and other local areas make the book come alive and `close to home.' Lastly, Kohler's strengths are explanations of genetics before the days of computers and great story telling ability. While genetics aspect of the book appears to be most believable, the personal stories may vary with the sources. I would recommend this book to scientists who are interested in the history of discovery.
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