“I Think I’ve Just Thought Up Something Important” – Francois Jacob (1920-2013)

Carl Zimmer in National Geographic:

JacobI just learned the sad news that the great biologist Francois Jacob has died. He won the Nobel Prizefor his work in the 1950s that showed how cells switch genes off–the first crucial step to understanding how life can use the genome like a piano, to make a beautiful melody instead of a blaring cacophony.

Jacob was also a wonderful writer, and so I had enormous pleasure mining his memoirs for my book Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life. I hope this passage gives a sense of what he was like–

One day in July 1958, François Jacob squirmed in a Paris movie theater. His wife, Lise, could tell that an idea was struggling to come out. The two of them walked out of the theater and headed for home.

“I think I’ve just thought up something important,” François said to Lise.

“Tell!” she said.

Her husband believed, as he later wrote, that he had reached “the very essence of things.” He had gotten a glimpse of how genes work together to make life possible.

Jacob had been hoping for a moment like this for a long time. Originally trained as a surgeon, he had fled Paris when the Nazis swept across France. For the next four years he served in a medical company in the Allied campaigns, mostly in North Africa. Wounds from a bomb blast ended his plans of becoming a surgeon, and after the war he wandered Paris unsure of what to do with his life. Working in an antibiotics lab, Jacob became enchanted with scientific research. But he did not simply want to find a new drug. Jacob decided he would try to understand “the core of life.” In 1950, he joined a team of biologists at the Pasteur Institute who were toiling away on E. coli and other bacteria in the institute’s attic.

Jacob did not have a particular plan for his research when he ascended into the attic, but he ended up studying two examples of one major bio- logical puzzle: why genes sometimes make proteins and sometimes don’t.

More here.