by Michael Malamy
For at least twenty years now I have given a few lectures – Microbiology and Molecular Biology – with discussion sections on the early papers of Benzer on rII, followed by the exploitation of the T4 bacteriophage rII system by Crick, Brenner and their colleagues to study the nature of mutations arising spontaneously or after treatment with mutagenic agents, the nature of the genetic code and to define many of the concepts that form the base of all molecular biology.
Besides presenting the experiments that lead to the definitions of the cistron, the gene, reading frame, initiation of translation, nonsense, missense and frame shifts, and others, the most important lesson is how to use model systems to address questions even if some aspects of the models are still undefined. For example, it took more than 25 more years to understand the function of the rII system but that did not prevent its use to address the important subjects listed above.
I also present the students with the notion that many scientists go around with unanswered and important questions, just waiting for a suitable system that they can use to address their questions.
With the great increase in the amount of information that graduate students are now taught, some faculty members have suggested that presenting papers that in most cases are much older than the students themselves, is a waste of teaching time.
I would really like to hear from other junior and senior faculty involved in teaching first year courses to graduate students whether they do or do not support my approach to teaching the origins, and experimental systems used in the past to answer these questions.
I realize that there are many possible approaches to teaching this basic material and would welcome learning how others are doing it.
Michael Malamy is a professor of Molecular Biology and Microbiology at Tufts Medical School in Boston. For a long time, he has made important contributions to the field and has trained untold graduate students.