wih David Fishlock, Scientific editor, Finantial Times.
In a way, inquiring into the biotechnologies field was for me the next chapter in looking at a revolution, having started with The Electronics Era from chips to bugs, from “chimeras” to “clones”. For the Japanese market, a male author was needed : I met a wonderful journalist, one of the stars of the very serious English newspaper Financial Times in 1967, David Fishlock, and I convinced him to be an adviser (and to sign with me) for the book on Biotechnology. In September-October 1990, he wrote in The Genetic Engineer and Biotechnologist: “In 1985, a delightful Frenchwoman called Elizabeth Antébi from Paris, author and TV producer, persuaded me to collaborate on an ambitious book called Biotechnology. Strategies for Life. It was the eleventh book I have written, co-authored or edited, and the most fun because it involved working with Mme Antébi. This column also gives me a chance to say publicly that she, and not I, did most of the work.”
Biotechnology explores the exciting world of modern biology in a broad descriptive and humanistic account that is interspersed with over 250 colour illustrations and photographs, supplemented by deeper scientific explanations, in the form of original articles by researchers from universities and major industries, including Monsanto, the Institute for Cancer Research, Eli Lilly, Hoffmann-La Roche, and Du Pont de Nemours.
Biotechnology explains the techniques used (genetic engineering, fermentation, enzymes, cell fusion, monoclonal antibodies, microbiological engineering), the applications (in medicine, food and feed, seeds, plants, energy, pollution, mining and biomaterials), the international economic stakes for investors and industry, and the effect on people’s lives in the foreseeable future.
The books explains how genes can be designed to produce human insulin, interferon, and growth hormones, and how micro-organisms, or “bugs”, can be domesticated to gobble up oil spills and do other kinds of useful work. It also takes up patenting and the risks involved with the new biotechnological industries, to the new biology firms, government strategies, and academic-industrial relations.
With a Board of Scientific Advisors, Saburo Fukui at Kyoto University, Hiroshi Harada at Tsukuba University, Leroy Hood, Caltech, Mark Ptashne Harvard, and two Prix Nobel Winners of Medicine, François Jacob, Collège de France and Pasteur Institute, and Severo Ochoa, Roche Institute of Molecular Biology.
“With a little diligence, the lay reader can learn an incredible amount about this growing field of biotechnology. The subject affects or will affect many aspects of life with developments such as genetic engineering and production of antibodies. Filled with fine graphics and illustrations, this is an informative and truly riveting book.” United Press/Valley Daily News, Kent, WA, Oct 24, 1986.
“In this clearly conceived history, Antebi and Fishlock take the view that biotechnology is not really an industry by itself but a set of enabling technologies for a wide range of other industries. And they examine the applications, actual and potential, of gene manipulation and allied techniques in a great many of them.
Several aspects distinguish their survey. One is that each section contains articles in which important contributors to the field being considered offer their unique perspectives. Nobel-laureate Jean Dausset, for example, writes on immunogenetics, and Irving Johnson describes Eli Lilly’s development of recombinant human insulin. Another distinguishing characteristic is that Antebi and Fishlock themselves write with considerable insight, placing their expositions in an historical and philosophical context that recalls Horace Freeland Judson’s, Eight Day of Creation. Finally these texts are skilfully combined with a large number of color illustrations, and presented in a large-format (9 x 12 inch) volume that makes Biotechnology resemble an expensive, coffee-table, art-book more than a serious scientific history. Yet anyone looking for a book to introduce biotechnology to a non-initiate, to round out consider this offering.” Harvey Bialy, research editor of Bio/Technology.
“Students of biology and science will find this oversized, colour photo illustrated title particularly inviting and a welcome alternative to more weighty treatises on the subject. The history, economics, industry and science of biotechnology are presented with a lay audience in mind : the field is given an unusually positive and exciting emphasis and major discoveries and future potentials make it a thought provoking account. A ‘must’ for anyone with an interest in the field.” The Bookwatch, Dec 1986.
“This beautifully illustrated book presents the history of biotechnology and explains the techniques and tools used, such as genetic engineering, fermentation, enzymes, cell fusion, monoclonal antibodies and microbiological engineering. Discusses the applications in medicine, food and animal feeds, seeds, plants, energy, pollution, mining, and biomaterials. Tells of the international economic stakes for industry and investors and indicates the effect of biotechnology on people’s lives for the foreseeable future. Originally published in French.” Science News, Sept 20, 1986.
“ ‘1953 : in Cambridge, England, two men discover the secret of heredity in the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule. 1973 : in San Francisco, two other men succeed in creating the first “chimera” using genetic-engineering techniques.’ This is the opening paragraph of Elizabeth Antebi and David Fishlock’s book, which promises coverage, in six chapters, of the techniques used in biotechnology.[…] The authors, both journalists, are to be praised for the sheer quantity of material that has been covered, and the publishers for the colourful way it has been presented.[…] The book is a large, tantalising tome ; a quick flick through would encourage you to think ‘here is everything you’ ve ever wanted to know about biotechnology’. It has alluring heading thoughout The great turning point : antibiotics and secondary metabolites ; When cells go mad : cancer ; The dangerous links between town and gown, to mention a few. And to be fair, the authors have succeeded in their coverage.” Peter Farago, PhD, Chemistry in Britain, May 1987.
« Designed for the layman, this book explains the techniques used in biotechnology, its applications, and the economic factors involved, and predicts how this industry will affect our lives.” Genetic Engineering News, New York, Dec 1 1986.
The biotechnology boom is on. In just over two decades, theories of molecular biology led to genetic engineering experiments at the laboratory level that soon evolved into biotechnological production on an industrial scale that has come to affect almost every human activity - our food, fuel, waste, health - virtually every biological process or interaction with our environment, and there are no limits in sight. Biotechnology explores the exciting world of modern biology in a broad descriptive and humanistic account that is interspersed with over 250 color illustrations and photographs, supplemented by deeper scientific explanations in the form of original articles by researchers from universities and major industries, including Monsanto, the Institute for Cancer Research, Eli Lilly, Hoffmann-La Roche, and Du Pont de Nemours. Biotechnology explains the techniques used (genetic engineering, fermentation, enzymes, cell fusion, monoclonal antibodies, microbiological engineering), the applications (in medicine, food and feed, seeds, plants, energy, pollution, mining and biomaterials), the international economic stakes for investors and industry, and the affect on people's lives in the foreseeable future. The book explains how genes can be designed to produce human insulin, interferon, and growth hormones, and how microorganisms, or "bugs," can be domesticated to gobble up oil spills and do other kinds of useful work. It also takes up patenting and risks to the new biology firms, government strategies, and academic-industrial relations. Elizabeth Antébi is the author of a number of other books, most recently The Electronic Epoch. David fish lock, the author or editor of 11 books, is Science Editor of the Financial Times.
“The book is a success. Very well written, clear and skilled, serious but never boring, lavishly illustrated, it shows that one can popularize without betraying, teach without becoming prohibitively complex. Elizabeth Antébi, who accomplished the same tour de force earlier with electronics, has taken a co-author, David Fishlock, in charge of the scientific column of the British paper Financial Times. Both have shown clearly how promising and innovative the use of biotechnologies could be for us. » R.C., Le Matin de Paris, December 31, 1985.
« Thanks to Biotechnology : Strategies for Life, a real encyclopaedia on the subject, one can learn how life is tinkering with life, how it feeds and defends itself. […] There, you can find everything from the mysteries of fermentation and of roquefort cheese, to those of using genetic engineering to produce interferon. It starts like a Christmas tale : Once upon a time, a very tall and emaciated king, called DNA, had a lot of servants, called enzymes. King DNA was like a book where would be written all the work to be given to the servants …, explains, young Sylvia Arber, aged ten, to her girlfriends at school when her father Werner Arber received the Nobel Prize for his discoveries on restriction enzymes (the servants who play the role of a pair of scissors). From that day in 1953, when James Watson and Francis Crick unveiled the secrets of the molecular structure of DesoxyriboNucleic Acid (DNA), all that was needed was this amazing discovery by Arber by chance only to immediately open up unexpected dimensions and give new power to the sciences of life.[…] Bacteria was even being used to produce insulin for diabetes and interferon for cancer, to mine minerals from ore, to capture the energy of the sun, extract nitrogen from the air, and to replace chips in micro-computers. You read this book as a novel, with, on top of that, the precision of a scientific approach. (Six world-famous consultants of international renown, among them two Nobel Prize winners, supervised the book).[…] It powerfully presents all the risks implicit in this diabolic power. Watson told one journalist: We rewrote the Bible. » Sophie Séroussi, Libération, December 27, 1985.
« Emerging out of two years of worldwide inquiry throughout some of the most famous labs of the planet, and discussions with a select group of Nobel Prize winners, as well as with businessmen, this astute (and extremely well-illustrated) book,: Biotechnology : Strategies to Life by Elizabeth Antébi and journalist from The Financial Times David Fishlock, tells us the history of the great “DIY expert” of molecules. […]
[…] ‘Today’, tells François Jacob, ‘a student is able to tamper in his laboratory with the molecule of the life as with the motor of a simple car.’ ‘For ten years or more’, tells Elizabeth Antébi, ‘we have witnessed the gradual disappearance of what René Dubos (thinking of Pasteur) used to call the white knights of science, who had always respected the order of life. Now, new-comers, the engineers of life, have no other goal than to decipher, spell, copy, even to correct the work of nature, and furthermore, with bio-mimetics, to actually invent new molecules..’ […] This evolution of science seems, even to the scientists, a transformation of the way of looking at our world. Reading this fascinating book, one wonders if the engineers and new « strategists of life » are not really looking at bugs as the most fabulous conquest of Man, after horses. […]This beautiful book, in which the new heroes and stars of molecular biology have participated, is full of amusing tales and surprising details: we learn, for example, that a Japanese Company, in Okayama, erected a memorial to the hamsters killed for research purposes!… A company in the States, started the commercial exploitation of “the musical mystery of our cells”, in the form of a disc, composed from the four fundamental symbols of the genetic alphabet (A.C.G.T.)… Biotechnology tells us all about this adventure, even to that of the electron, of nuclear power, of Space, without avoiding the ethical, religious or philosophical questions. Because here, we are at stake!» Frédéric de Towarnicki, Le Figaro, December 27 1985.
« Biotechnology, published at the same time in French, English, German, Dutch and even Japanese seems to win unanimous support, from experts as well as from lay people..[…] For each new term, Elizabeth Antébi has made the effort to search out knowledge, perceptions and images, to allow us to understand the material without betraying it. Bachelor of both French Literature and the Classics, and also of Art History, she was very new to biology. To this ingenuity, she added the two main virtues of the journalist rigour and cheek. Rigour, because she never explains something before having understood it ; cheek because she dares to ask a Nobel Prize winner to explain what will be just one paragraph in the book.» Pierre Virolleaud, Usine nouvelle, 31 October, 1985.
« ‘We were gods before becoming men’ wrote once the biologist Jean Rostand. As Elizabeth Antébi has a passion for the mechanisms of power and current society, and as David Fishlock, in charge of the scientific column of the Financial Times is an expert in the field of the history of sciences, these threads are never far beneath the surface of the book. And that’s the source of its originality.» Marie-François De Pange, Le Quotidien du Médecin, December 11, 1985.
« A complete overview of biology in today’s world, with its multiple facets, is given here: the facet of living matter, whose great complexity and diabolical tricks surprise us and fill us with wonder. The facet of the researchers, who, over a mere century, came to understand a lot of its secrets. The facet of the businesspeople, who, having domesticated these secrets, created plants where the workers are bugs. This is the story, being told here for the first time, of the biggest scientific revolution of our time, after nuclear power. Well written, beautifully illustrated, it’s a success.» Dr. Escoffier-Lambiotte, Le Monde, January 15,1986.
« A real intellectual and technical success, Biotechnology gives us a perfect overview of the history, the current state, and the possibilities of what are today called the bio-industries. We are here in the youngest of sciences, as it was just in 1953 when two scientists discovered the double helix structure of DNA, and in 1973 when the first ‘chimera ‘ was created.» Pierre Daix, Quotidien de Paris, 7 January, 1986.
«A mine of knowledge, interviews, anecdotes.[…] The metaphors used are very interesting indeed: the cell is a council estate ; the genetic code is a complex syntax based on a very simple alphabet, with just four letters ; enzymes are little workaholic chemists ; the monoclonal antibodies are homing device missiles ; cancer happens when a cell goes mad, hormones excite the troops, and vaccines defend them against any invader ; jumping genes give to the bacteria new resistances against antibiotics, and so on. A very useful read. » Marie-Laure Moinet, Science et Vie, mars 1986.
« Life is a genius of engineering : Did you know that our future food will contain a lot of proteins but not a gram of meat ? Or that the universality of the genetic code is challenged by the tiny paramecium ? Or that a fifth taste sense, umami, is as indispensable to your gustatory pleasure as the salt, the sweet, the acid or the bitter ? No? You will learn all that and many other things in Biotechnology, a sumptuous encyclopaedia on life.» Actuel.
To read also the article on New Year’s Eve, written by E.A. for the Figaro-Magazine.
What they said :
“I wish you every success with your book, which will be an important contribution to the history of technology.” John Bardeen, twice Nobel Price winner in Physics for the invention of the transistor (with Shockley and Brattain) and his works on superconductivity.
“I enjoyed reading it very much. The text is very interesting and the style, pleasant.” Severo Ochoa, Roche Institute, Nobel Prize winner 1959.
“I’m very impressed by how clever your presentation is.” Saburo Fukui, Kyoto University.
“I was very impressed by the quality of all your chapters. They make clear and simple, what is often complex and hard to explain. Also, I’m amazed at how up to date your information is”. Dr. Dominique Bellet, Gustave Roussy, Institute, Paris.
1953: In Cambridge, England, two men discover the secret of heredity in the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule.
1973: In San Francisco, two other men succeed in creating the first “chimera” using genetic-engineering techniques.
Between these two dates something extraordinary occurred: men had learned to decipher, spell, write, and even correct the spelling mistakes of life itself. Today, in only a few weeks, a student can “learn to tinker in the laboratory with the very molecule of heredity as if it were a common auto engine”, to use François Jacob’s expression.
In industrial and university laboratories throughout the world, researchers are trying to get microorganisms to produce substances they would not secrete naturally, to nourish themselves on petroleum spills and other noxious wastes, and to concentrate lean mineral deposits. Biologists, microbiologists, biochemists, and geneticists are exploring the mechanisms that control and regulate every living being on earth, men and animals, plants and bacteria. All of this will have incalculable consequences for the diagnosis and treatment of such mysterious diseases as cancer and thrombosis, the diagnosis and correction of genetic deficiencies of children still in their mother’s wombs, and the improvement of the plant species used to feed mankind. Having explored matter and the infinitely small and the stars and the infinitely large, it is now time to explore “Man, the unknown”.
A revolution or a renaissance? Have we not always produced fermented food and drink with the help of microorganisms? Have we not had vaccines since Pasteur? Or antibiotics since just after World War II? And have we not, from time immemorial, crossbred plants?
What has really changed is the possibility of tinkering with the genetic heritage of living matter, of recombining genes, modifying natural organisms, and domesticating microbes. And this has led to the birth of a bioindustry, which is not really a new industry but a complex web of enabling technologies giving new impetus to the conception, orientation, and strategy of traditional industries in such diverse fields as pharmaceuticals, and medicines, food processing, agriculture, energy, and pollution control.
Bioindustry is in fact a series of paradoxes. The first paradox: Most major bioindustrial inventions are not the result of directed research but often answers to questions that have arisen in other fields. Thus the enormous vaccine industry stems from Pasteur’s research on the refraction of polarized light in crystals. As François Jacob says, “If we had been specifically looking for a tool with which to cut DNA, we could never have found it as did Werner Arber in studying the phage, the restriction enzyme that has become the scissors of genetic engineering”. Phages are viruses infecting bacteria, and only a handful of scientists were studying them during and just after World War II. “Purely an intellectual game, a form of folklore of interest to barely ten people on earth!” added Jacob, speaking of a friend who, passing him in the corridor, jokingly asked, “So, how are you getting along with your phage?” And it was exactly from this study of the phages that sprang molecular biology and the “phage” group founded by Max Delbrück, Salvador Luria, and Alfred Hershey. One of their students was a certain James Watson, who, along with Francis Crick, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for having determined the structure of DNA.
Another paradox: With the biotechnologies, bankers and investors are for the first time putting their money into products that not only do not exist but that no one can yet specify! For, although the electronics industry is the brainchild of research directed and financed by the government and the army, biotechnology owes its existence to private enterprise alone. Silicon Valley has now become SillyClone Valley. Venture capitalists, investors with risk capital, avid for further “success stories”, have in an instant turned from “chips” to “bugs”. Wishing to avoid the error of the major manufacturers of vacuum tubes (General Electronic, RCA, Sylvania), which were ousted from the component market for not having negotiated the switch to semiconductors in time, businessmen are now preparing for what promises to be a boom in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries, in energy and agroindustry. If, when J.J. Thomson discovered the electron in 1897, investors had proceeded to bet heavily on Jean Perrin, Robert Millikan, or Lee De Forest (inventor of the triode), we would have a good analogy with what has been happening in biotechnology since the late 1970s. And many university graduates, on hearing the siren’s song, have followed the example of Herbert Boyer, Walter Gilbert, or David Baltimore (and many others) in ferreting out capital, founding new biotechnology firms (NBFs), directing foundations, or sitting on boards of directors. Dramatic breakthroughs have been the rule since the very beginning, with Genentech stock being snapped up by Wall Street as soon as it was put on the market in 1980, then rocketing from $35 to $89 in a mere 20 minutes! Cetus beat still another record the following year when the value of its stock hit $115 million on first being offered. Yet perhaps it had all been exaggerated. Research proved long, difficult, and costly, many small companies were stillborn, and still others had to resign themselves to merging with large corporations and to becoming in their own research laboratories, concerned above all with profitability. The initial analogy between electronics and biotechnology breaks down on closer analysis. With the electron microscope, memory systems, and data processing, electronics had provided molecular biology with the research tools it needed, but it also supplied a model, with the concept of a program and a code, which could be applied to living matter. And even back in 1943, had not the famed quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger, in What Is Life, compared hereditary material to a coded message?
Contrary to the situation in electronics, biotechnology is not so much an industry in its own right as a set of enabling technologies for other industries to use. Even so, many technical and economic problems remain to be solved in the transfer from the laboratory stage to true mass production. Furthermore, the “raw material” of biotechnology is living matter, idiosyncratic, subject to instability and to the variability of biological laws, which are not always known or predictable. A microcomputer, on the other hand, is subject only to the laws of physics, which served as the basis for its design.
Living matter is subject to necessity, but chance or hazard also plays an important part. Hazard, understood by scientists to be independent of cause or effect, has, through an erosion of meaning, become an ambiguous word. Over the past twenty years or so, scientific literature has arisen that attempts to reconcile these two apparently irreconcilable views of the world around us. With varying degrees of success, physicists and historians of physics have produced an amalgam of science and Oriental philosophy bearing such titles as The Tao of Physics, The Dance of the Elements, The Eye of Shiva. To biologists, on the other hand, it is simply a matter of proving or disproving the existence of God or some other “higher intelligence”. The most characteristic example of this was provided by Lysenko in the Soviet Union, who persisted in refusing to believe in DNA because it implied that men would no longer be able to determine their own destinies as taught by historical determinism.
Those attending the many seminars held in Paris during the 1950s began to call themselves “Monod-theists”, and to a journalist from Omni who came to interview him, James Watson declared, “We rewrote the Bible”. Richard Axel, for his part, baptized his son Adam. These were jokes, of course, just as was Dali’s contention that DNA proved the existence of God. But such whimsy cannot disguise the subtle change that occurred in our thinking and in our language, or mask our apprehension of the universe, which is so frequently commented upon by important scientists who also happen to be profound writers (François Jacob, Lewis Thomas, and James Watson, to mention but a few).
“In Japan we start from a quite different premise”, says Kiyoshi Aoki, a professor at the Life Sciences Institute of Tokyo’s Sophia University. “To Western biologists, life is matter; to us, who have been influenced by Oriental religions in which everything, whether stones or bacteria or monkeys or men, has a soul life is spirit. The Japanese mind shrinks away from the idea that there is a distinction between higher and lower forms of life or that there is a possibility of swaying evolution.”
At the University of Tokyo’s School of Medicine, a period is set aside each semester in remembrance of the animals that have been sacrificed, and the Hayashibara Company in Okayama has erected a monument to the hamsters that died in its laboratories. A Kyoto businessman has even raised a stele to the microorganisms (yeasts and molds) to which he owed his fortune. No one in Japan finds this surprising. But how would people in France or the United States react if the Institut Pasteur or Rockefeller University built a monument to their mice?
It is only by appreciating this fundamental difference between these two ways of thinking that it becomes possible to understand the odd phrase written by the famed microbiologist (and translator of Jacques Monod’s book Chance and Necessity), Itaru Watanabe, who concluded his remarks on evolution with the words “God is the future of mankind”. He seemed to imply by this that transcendence might perhaps be a later stage in evolution, following energy and the Big Bang, matter and physics, life and biology, thought and the brain. In this he is opposed to other scientists, including Nobel Prize Winner in Physics H. Yukawa, who was brought up in China and to whom science is but one part of the infinitude of the universe, which is beyond the scope of science.
One of Watanabe’s students and now director of social, natural, and environmental research at the Mitsubishi Kasei Institute, Keiko Nakamura, looks at things less rigidly. From her standpoint, Jacques Monod, if he were still alive, would have to take into account the recent discoveries in molecular biology that no longer make it possible to extend the knowledge we have of bacteria to mankind: “Western science and technology are direct offshoots of Western philosophy. What we have has urgent need of since the Meiji era and the end of the last century is Western science and techniques, not Western philosophy. Today, young researchers are drawn to the new science and such books as Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics. Yet this reconciliation with Eastern ways of thinking seems familiar enough to us. The use of life as a raw material for technology naturally enough raises philosophical questions, but Japan is in the habit of assimilating everything Shinto gods, Buddhism, Christianity so why not this type of Western philosophy?”
The irruption of the engineer with his mechanisms and systems into a world thought to be immutable has roused mankind’s ancestral fears. Though the public has become aware that the “intelligence” of a computer is artificial and consists of man-made programs and that its “memory” is defined by the amount of data it can store, this overly human language had already fostered confusion and imposed a logical sequence resulting in the present model of man: program-code-data. A film like The Boys from Brazil, in which Dr. Mengele creates clones genetic twins of Hitler, incipient child Führers resembling their “cellular progenitor” feature by feature, raised fantasy to the level of myth… a myth maintained by the heroes of molecular biology who had become legends in their own lifetimes. In Double Helix, a book published in 1968 that immediately became a bestseller, James Watson, alias “Lucky Jim” or “Honest Jim”, recounted the remarkable history of the double helix “with a little of the innocence and absurdity of children telling a fairy-tale” (J. Bronowski, The Nation, 18 March 1968, pp. 381-382). “The self-portrait of the scientist as a young man in a hurry,” said J. Merton. And young Watson certainly was young at the time of his DNA discovery only 24. Young, too, are the current superstars of molecular biology David Baltimore, Mark Ptashne, Walter Gilbert, Leroy Hood, Richard Axel, and Robert Weinberg. This is even one of the outstanding traits of the attraction exerted by these remarkable people who, to parody G. Stent’s remarks on Jacques Monod, combine the characteristics of Darwin with those of Prince Charming.
To this seductiveness has been added the golden legend of glory, the avalanche of Nobel Prizes that over fifteen years, has crowned the efforts of many dozens of scientists, and brought fame to research teams everywhere, from Cambridge, UK, to Cambridge, US, from the East Coast to the West Coast of the United States and from Europe to Japan. Manna now showers down on these researchers, and over their cradles hover the fairy godfathers of industry and commerce, foundations of every kind, and the purveyors of venture capital. Genetic engineering, protein engineering, microbiological engineering are the subjects on everyone’s lips. And as always at the start of any great new scientific adventure, a voyage into the unknown has begun. But with this difference: We ourselves are the unknown.
“Explore the musical mysteries of the cell”, said the 1985 ad in the very serious scientific journal Science to promote the sales of a record. “DNA Music”, based on the four notes, C, G, A, and T, of the genetic alphabet. The fact that this musical message from our genes has become a consumer product is significant: life is henceforth to be sold as a gadget, a sure sign that an industry has come into its own.
But what industry? An industry based on what the English call “enabling technology” a technology that makes it possible to do everything from extracting chewing gum from plants to having bacteria manufacture artificial snow. Improving life through bacteria, shortening working hours thanks to microorganisms, a job with a future for dynamic microbes: such are the advertising slogans that are beginning to appear in the press. After the robot, the microbe.
By the year 2000 we may well smile at all this as fads, as ephemeral as the first New York nightclub of the “bio” era, named Interferon. Just as we smile today at the Abbé Nolet’s “electric kiss”, the “miracle” of radio, G. K. Chesterton’s statement that the electron was “pure abracadabra”, or H. G. Well’s prophecy that radio would only reach “a phantom army of inexistent listeners”. Simple fads, or as yet enigmatic symptoms of a pivotal era whose real nature no one can guess?
And what about man? Has not man himself become a laboratory animal on a planetary scale? Over the centuries, from Epicurus, Plato, and Euclid to Galileo, Descartes, Leibniz, Robespierre, and Napoleon, men of science, war, or government have guessed that, behind the “tiny trickle of feeling”, as the economist Edgeworth put it, there lay a program and a code. The program came to light in 1953, the code deciphered less than ten years later. The DNA that turns in the opposite direction, jumping genes, silent genes, the paramecia that cast doubt on the universality of the code, and other troublemakers today and tomorrow will but throw back the frontiers of exploration and explanation. Like even the most outstanding accomplishments the DNA probe or monoclonal antibodies every new discovery in molecular biology is a hook thrown into the universal soup to lure and catch the great enigmas. What is it that distinguishes a man from a chimpanzee? We finally know the answer: a 1% difference in DNA bases.
The London Times shows no hesitation in writing that DNA has become the “evolutionary clock”. Why? In a quiet laboratory at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, a researcher, Svante Pääbo, is in the process of cloning the DNA of a human being, certainly nothing extraordinary in 1985. What is exceptional, however, is that the DNA in question comes from the flesh of a mummy. It is the genetic program of a dead man who lived in Egypt 2,400 years ago and is now being revived in a test tube in the middle of Scandinavia. The independent life of the genes, well after the death of the man (like the “immortality” of the cancer cells from a long-buried patient), is enough to make one dream. But scientists are not there to dream. A full year before this, at the University of California at Berkeley, A. Wilson was able to clone the DNA of a quagga a species of animal assumed to be extinct and Russell Higuchi that of a mammoth, dead some 40,000 years earlier!
Were these simply attempts to reconstitute a zoo of extinct species or to have a closer look at one of Tutankhamen’s favorites? Not at all, but rather an effort to explore evolution, as one might explore the mechanisms of the cell, of birth, of aging, of cancer, of immunology, and of death.
There is nothing neutral about this investigation, as its ultimate aim is control and regulation, everything involved in “switching on” and “switching off”. It is vertiginous, if, like W. Yamaya of Mitsubishi Chemical, we keep in mind that the information contained in DNA is 10 billion times 100 billion bits (the basic unit of data processing), compared with several tens of thousands of bits in a dictionary and a scant 1 billion in the most sophisticated computer imaginable.
The industry of life creates a change of perspective. Things change first of all for the engineer, used as he is in mechanics, electronics, or even in the nuclear field to scaling up from a model to full size: a living organism reacts differently if its environment is changed, and it is impossible to go from in vitro to in vivo. The engineer is consequently forced to do things in reverse and design large-scale machines and then scale them down to produce the best possible reactor for his experiments. The perspective has also changed for investors and businessmen, who for the first time are now forced to define narrowly the impact of products that do not yet exist and whose future costs are unknown. It also changes for academics and politicians, who no longer know how to train young people or in which direction to point them. And, above all, it changes for mankind as a whole, those “robots blindly programmed to transport and preserve those egotistical molecules known as genes”, as Richard Dawkins defines his fellows in The Selfish Gene. “Curiously enough”, says S. Guttmann of Sandoz, “discoveries in molecular biology and genetic engineering have always begun with the inhibitory factors of a system (repressor, inhibition of renin, etc.) rather than with activation. This may be a natural tendency of the human mind”. Enzyme-feedstock, antibody-antigene: they key-lock or lock-bolt analogies are numerous in molecular biology. And men, ensnared by the most contradictory “bioideologies” (sociobiology or behaviorism, holism or reductionnism) undoubtedly have trouble identifying themselves with those thousands of the Metropolis (the cells) at work in their own bodies. The youngsters of the “Me Generation” are faced with the ultimate quandary: When the “me” disappears, what remains? Listening to the music of one’s own genes, perhaps, while escaping into the wonderful narcissism of gymnastics, aerobics, jogging, or other forms of bodybuilding. The researcher observing life in a test tube is like the spectator at a peep show, isolated behind his one-way window.
Oddly enough, these anxieties are reflected in debates on what is rather pompously known as The Ethical Question: Will we not witness the birth of monsters in our laboratories? Will we not show a tendency to stifle an incipient Beethoven in the womb because he shows a slight hereditary defect? Will we not change the planetary balance by creating invulnerable bacteria that will kill off all life? But since Asilomar in 1975, a conference organized by the scientists themselves to discuss the dangers of genetic engineering, the debate has taken a wrong turn. No institution, no law is capable of imposing an ethic on a society that has lost sight of the meaning of the word. The debate actually started when the first nomad decided to settle down, when the first farmer created the first tool, and maybe even before this. Perhaps as far back as Genesis, when God ordered men to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl in the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth”. And it is exactly a debate of this kind that both scientists and politicians avoid, for it raises questions that are not the province of science but of quite another sphere, and that science alone is powerless to solve.