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Book Forum: Genetics   |    
Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior
DAVID V. FORREST, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2001;158:828-828. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.158.5.828
View Author and Article Information
New York, N.Y.

By Jonathan Weiner. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1999, 300 pp., $27.50; $14.00 (paper).

When we were high school juniors, my friend Jack surprised me by choosing to do a fruit fly experiment for his Westinghouse Science Talent Search entry. In those days his choice sounded weird and, well, sort of nitpicking. In the ensuing years, in which Jack became a radiologist and most of us were intent on improving or eschewing Vietnam, a dedicated band of "drosophilists," whose oddities are lovingly limned in this charming account, began the discovery of no less than the genetics of behavior. Chief among them, and apparently oddest by far, is Seymour Benzer, who daily eats food one would expect only at The Explorers Club, whose nocturnal habits convince him he is a clock gene mutant, and who is perpetually cold.

As a youth Benzer was inspired by the fictional mentor of Arrowsmith (1), the mysterious German biologist Max Gottlieb, who exemplified the pure "religion" of a scientist. Benzer is a man who received a Proxmire Golden Fleece Award in the same year he received a Nobel nomination. He is a scientist’s scientist; if you have not heard of him, Konrad Lorenz, Richard Feynman, and James Watson have. Benzer feels he avoided both the notice and the calumny heaped upon E.O. Wilson because the animals he studied were so small people thought of them as abstractions! Benzer began as a wartime physicist at Purdue in the 1940s, where he discovered a germanium crystal that was a forerunner of the transistor. Schrödinger’s What Is Life?(2) led Benzer to biology.

Benzer and his minions at the Fly Room at Caltech over the years assailed the genetics of the three behavior classes of the book’s title: time (biological clocks), love (courtship), and memory (learning). Tim Tully, one of Benzer’s student’s students, said they were studying Pavlov from the inside.

In 1962 Benzer began to think about the study of genes and behavior. Then his student Ronald J. Konopka discovered clock mutant flies whose days had a period of 19 hours, and because he was working with flies and not chicks or potatoes, he was able to map the short-period mutation. When he also mapped the long-period and arrhythmic mutations, he found to his amazement they all mapped to the same place on the X chromosome, less than a centimorgan from the white gene, and zero centimorgans from each other. They published this in 1971.

This momentous discovery of the clock gene period, revealing that time could be observed from the inside as well as the outside and disbelieved by many at the time, meant that behavior could be mapped genetically.

The picture-winged Drosophila has elaborate courtship rituals and songs to serenade the females. Jeff Hall, who joined Benzer’s laboratory in 1971, employed half male and half female gynandromorphs with varying parts male and female neuroanatomy to map the sexual behaviors. He also mapped males that could not withdraw from coitus (stuck) and would follow other males in conga lines (fruity, later revised to fruitless).

Flies were long assumed to be hard-wired in regard to memory and learning. Chip Quinn also joined the laboratory in 1971. Several of the group had astounding memories themselves, and they were fascinated by memory. Quinn decided to use smells (octanyl, like licorice, versus methylcyclohexanyl, like tennis shoes in July) paired with 70-volt shocks for 15 seconds (lethal to us but annoying to flies) to condition the flies to prefer one or the other odor. Some remembered their preference for 24 hours (6 years in human lives), and some never learned, with a dunce gene near period.

Although dedicated to these triumphs of genetics, this book does not let us conclude that with elucidation of the genes of behavior we have arrived at any destination. It will be necessary to elucidate all the chemical mechanisms between the gene and behavior. The book counters the current hype about the goal of the genome of mouse and man.

William Rosenthal, M.D., suggested this book for review.

Lewis S: Arrowsmith (1925). New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990
 
Schrödinger E: What Is Life? And Mind and Matter (1944). Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 1967
 
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References

Lewis S: Arrowsmith (1925). New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990
 
Schrödinger E: What Is Life? And Mind and Matter (1944). Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 1967
 
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