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‘The Scientist Who Scrambled Darwin’s Tree of Life’

This story (actually a book excerpt) by David Quammen hits my sweet spot. It’s a magazine feature about science that mixes the personalities of the scientists, the excitement of discovery, and a solid explanation of some mind-blowing discoveries that really change how we look at the origins of life on this planet.

This is my favorite part:

The mechanics [to read ribosomal RNA] were intricate, laborious and a little spooky. They involved explosive liquids, high voltages, radioactive phosphorus, at least one form of pathogenic bacteria and a loosely improvised set of safety procedures. Courageous young grad students, postdocs and technical assistants, under a driven leader, were pushing their science toward points where no one had gone before. OSHA, though recently founded, was none the wiser….

The work was deceptively perilous. [Former grad student Mitchell] Sogin described to me the deliveries of radioactive phosphorus (an isotope designated as P32, with a half-life of 14 days), which amounted to a sizable quantity arriving every other Monday. The P32 came as liquid within a lead “pig,” a shipping container designed to protect the shipper, though not whoever opened it. Sogin would draw out a measured amount of the liquid and add it to whatever bacterial culture he intended to process next. “I was growing stuff with P32,” he said, tossing that off as a casual memory. “It was crazy. I don’t know why I’m alive today.”

I’ve heard of horizontal gene transfer before, but the ramifications of that discovery had never really hit me until I read this article. Life is wondrous and complicated and we are still struggling to understand all the biological mechanisms that drive its growth and change.