Friday, April 6, 2007

This Week's Citation Classic

Luria SE, Delbruck M, & Anderson TF. 1943. Electron microscope studies of bacterial viruses. Journal of Bacteriology 46 (1): 57-77.

It didn't exactly happen this way, but nevertheless, I like to think it did.

In 1942, a German national (Max Delbruck) and an Italian national (Salvador Luria) approached the National Research Council Committee on Biological Applications of the Electron Microscope and asked whether they could use it to take pictures of, erm, bacterial viruses.

Of course at this time, the US was at war with Germany and Italy, and
"powerful elite committees in American science and industry were ubiquitous during wartime," regulating access to expensive, sensitive machinery. It's amusing to imagine Luria and Delbruck before the committee asking for the keys to an immensely powerful and highly mysterious microscope. One might have expected the committee to throw them out on their backsides and dial the FBI to report a couple of spies.

But they didn't. Luria, Delbruck and Anderson (a postdoc at RCA) shot some of the first photos of viruses, and lovely photos they are. I particularly like the photo of the bursting E. coli cell. The truth is that today's photos are more detailed and crisper, but not by much. Considering how difficult it is to take EM photos, Luria et al.'s photos are magnificent.

Much of my current work involves making movies of lambda phage lysing E. coli and determining mean and variation of lysis timing among different genotypes, so I feel a certain kinship to Luria and Delbruck, who were working on similar problems with similar organisms over 60 years ago. In the intervening time, stunning advances have taken place in biology, but some of the most fundamental questions remain unresolved.

Luria and Delbruck, both former physicists, later won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1969 (along with Al Hershey). Another interesting connection is that Luria's first graduate student was the 18 yr old James D. Watson. Indeed Luria and Delbruck can be, as much as anyone, credited with sparking the molecular biology revolution.

Nicolas Rasmussen. Picture Control: The Electron Microscope and the Transformation of Biology in America, 1940-1960. Writing Science. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997. xv + 338 pp. Ill.

S. E. Luria, M. Delbrück, and T. F. Anderson (1943). Electron Microscope Studies of Bacterial Viruses Journal of Bacteriology, 46, 57-77

1 comment:

  1. Thank You, a fascinating bit of history that I was totally unaware of.