100 years of Genetics, and my own contribution to the fête

January 6, 2016 • 12:45 pm

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the journal Genetics, still the premier journal of genetical research in the world. I subscribed to it for decades until e-journals became common, and was proud to have published in it a few times (its peer review was notoriously tough).

For the year 2016, the editors decided to reprint 24 of the most influential papers published in the journal over the last century, and solicit people to write commentaries on them.(Two commentaries per month.) I think that’s a great way to mark the anniversary.

Here’s the first issue of 2016, much of it available free online (click on the screenshot for the contents). The cartoon cover is a first for the journal, depicting the first paper in the journal’s first issue, a classic paper—by Calvin Bridges—whose title is at the lower right:

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 8.50.43 AM
Illustration depicting Calvin Bridges′ seminal 1916 paper, published in GENETICS. Featuring karyotypes found in the original paper as well as pachytenes and Drosophila melanogaster. Bridges pioneered the use of Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism in genetics. Cover illustration created by Alex Cagan (Max Planck Institute), who says he wanted to capture the sense of excitement and discovery Bridges must have felt at the time. He also describes the karyotypes as a natural form of calligraphy.

Bridges (1889-1938) is still a legend in fly genetics: brilliant, unorthodox, and wickedly handsome—a great favorite with the ladies.

The issue starts off with an essay by editor-in-chief Mark Johnston, “A new century of Genetics,” giving a short but lively history of the journal. Then there are the two “classic” papers, and I was honored to be asked to give the commentary on one of them. That paper was published in 1936 by my academic grandfather, Theodosius Dobzhansky, the Ph.D. advisor of Dick Lewontin, my own Ph.D. advisor. It was one of the first attempts to genetically dissect the reproductive barriers between species. (In fact, for most evolutionist those reproductive barriers are what constitute different species.) Click on the screenshot below to see the paper.

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 8.53.24 AM

I won’t go into detail about what Dobzhansky did except to say that he used genetically marked chromosomes to cross two species, and then used the markers to figure out which chromosomes carried genes making the hybrid males sterile.  In that era you had to use chromosomes marked with visible mutations, causing changes in traits like eye color, body color, or wing shape, so you were limited by the number of chromosome regions you could study (too many mutants kills a fly or makes it weak). Now, with molecular markers, the number of potential chromosome sites to study in this way is in the hundreds of thousands.

Below from the paper is a figure that we call a “Doby-gram” (Dobzhansky was known as “Doby” or “Dodek” to his students and friends), showing the effect of chromosomal constitution on the fertility (estimated as testis length) of backcross males. The white chromosomes are from the fruit flyDrosophila pseudoobscura, and the black from its sister species D. persimilis (then known as “race B” of Dpseudoobscura). You can see that every chromosome has an effect, but that of the X chromosome is HUGE. This is the famous “X effect” that my students and I studied, and the reason for it is now pretty well known. Note the crude hand-drawn graph with wobbly lines, typical of those days.  Such a figure would never be accepted for publication in today’s journals.

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 9.02.28 AMWhy is the paper important? Well, I’ll refer you to my very short precis, which you can get for free by clicking the screenshot below:
Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 8.54.43 AM
 The other famous paper highlighted is Sewall Wright’s 1931 classic (and LONG) work of theory, “Evolution in Mendelian populations.” It’s summarized in a nice introduction by my friend and colleague Nick Barton.
I’m pleased that so many of the 24 papers chosen as classics are in evolutionary genetics, and I’ll have the chance to write a commentary (with colleagues) for another of them before the year is out.

16 thoughts on “100 years of Genetics, and my own contribution to the fête

  1. This special issue of Genetics is a good idea. I wish other journals in other disciplines would do it. In History it is common to study the historiography of a subject (that is, the history of the history), but I don’t know if other disciplines do it. (Obviously, it is common too in other Humanities where they history of interpretation is often part of the study itself.) Personally, I’ve always found following the progress of the growth of knowledge in an area to be very instructive. One book I’ve always admired for this The Norton History of Chemistry.

    1. The Norton History of Chemistry is a very good one (though I am no expert). It doesn’t fall into pomo blather or prattle (antirealism included) about the subject like some contemporary stuff. I am slowly reading through some of its references – its one on the history of physical chemistry in the US was fascinating. (I now sort of understand why “general chemistry” is such a bizarre collection of topics!)

      However, it does not address the Asian alchemical traditions much and how they may have interacted with the Arab one, and hence to Europe and Boyle’s reconciliation of the natural philosophers and the chymists.

  2. Congratulations! (It’s all about fitness today I see: “a great favorite with the ladies”, “the effect of chromosomal constitution on the fertility”.)

  3. Impressive. The hand drawn figure is really clear, and one should consider that the shading in the testes length bars would be stippled by hand. Such illustrative skill would be common if not expected in those days.

  4. Congratulations on your inclusion.

    That’s quite a cover illustration! The sense of excitement is certainly evident in Bridge’s hair. There are a couple of flies that were quite excited as well and have escaped from etherous slumber. Doesn’t that fly in the lower right looks like a cat?

  5. Thank you, Jerry, for bringing this to my attention. I look forward to reading your article, those of other participants in the celebration, and the opportunity to obtain seminal papers in the field. I read the Dobzhansky paper cited when I took population genetics, but could stand to review it (and to review population genetics).

    The Ecological Society of America celebrated its centennial last year and had a review of notable papers in each of the journals it publishes:



  6. Nifty!

    Nice to be honoured this way, Jerry.

    (Fends off the stupidity one gets that “popularizers” aren’t peer-respected, too, though ideally that’s not necessary …)

  7. Reblogged this on My Selfish Gene and commented:
    I have a copy of Crick and Watson’s famous paper on DNA structure hanging on my wall at work. Can you believe that it takes up only one page? I can’t even read half of today’s papers if they’re outside of any field I’m familiar with. But these older and seminal papers – mostly published before the days of hyperspecialization, hyperjargon, and hyperBS – are wonderful to read. What a better way to spend an overcast and chilly weekend than to curl up with a pot of coffee and a classic genetics paper? Now that’s what I call fun!

Leave a Reply to Diane G. Cancel reply