Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Fruitfly Embryonic Development in 3-D

Biological Evolution

by Edward Hessler

Physicist and Nobel Prize Awardee Erwin Schrodinger's book What is Life?

The 1933 Nobel awardee in physics, Erwin Schrodinger, one of the founders of quantum mechanics turned his curiosity to a question of biology: "how can the events in space and time which take place within the spatial boundary of a living organism be accounted for by physics and chemistry?" (Wiki)

Erwin Schrodinger at U Vienna
Daderot at the English language Wikipedia
[GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)
or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)],
via Wikimedia Commons

His book, here in a PDF, What is Life? was "based on lectures delivered under the auspices of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies at Trinity College, Dublin, in February 1943."

The lectures were delivered for a lay audience but it is interesting that right from the outset he noted "that the subject-matter was a difficult one and that the lectures could not be termed popular, even though the physicist’s most dreaded weapon, mathematical deduction, would hardly be utilized (see Wiki entry above)!"

Fruitfly Larva Models Triumph of life over Entropy

Adam Frank, writing for NPR's Cosmos & Culture (November 10) notes that the triumph of life is not without its difficulties in understanding. He writes that hearing ideas related to thermodynamics "is one thing; seeing its reality is another." And he links us to a lovely example. It is a video from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) showing the development of a fruitfly larva from an undifferentiated condition to an organized larva (in about 20 hours).

Urophora stylata (Fruitfly sp.), Arnhem, the Netherlands
By Bj.schoenmakers (Own work) [CC0],
via Wikimedia Commons

More may be learned about filming life in the fast lane at EMBL

What I found more interesting than thermodynamics in this film is Schrodinger's discussion of "the hereditary code-script" or, in his best understanding, the chromosomes. He wrote, "It is these chromosomes, or probably only an axial skeleton fibre of what we actually see under the microscope as the chromosome, that contain in some kind of code-script the entire pattern of the individual's future development and of its functioning in the mature state." It is this development that is shown in the EMBL film.

Effects of Schrodinger's book on others and scientific research

Historians of science and scientists differ about the importance and influence of Schrodinger's book on career trajectories, biological research and our understanding of the natural world. Matthew Cobb, University of Manchester wrote a wonderfully informed history on "What Is Life" in a column for the Observer.

He discusses its influence in drawing young scientists to significant research careers in biology as well as Schrodinger's notion of a code-script on what was known earlier and following. Cobb is the author of a recent book on the genetic code which provides further details.

There is no robbery that is a result of this film. Mystery, beauty and wonder remain. Deeper, too. Richard Feynman once said "...science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and awe of the natural world. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts."

Nor do I.

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