"All that is true for the Colibacille is true for the elephant." – Jacques Monod 1954
"From the elephant to butyric acid bacterium—it is all the same!" – Albert Jan Kluyver 1926
I could not help myself. As I begin another year of blogging at STC, I had to start with this recurring theme of elephants. It does have the feeling of a blogger's equivalent to a composer's ostinato (think obstinate) – a motif that persistently repeats. Oh, but what wonderfully alluring motif, E. coli and Elephants! I first wanted to share this snippet when I mentioned the aphorisms quoted above in my 2021 post on how E. coli rose to prominence. And then again, when Christoph brought up the same quotes just a few months ago, I felt I had to write this.
That Jacques Monod would choose E. coli to represent bacteria we can all understand. By 1954 the "Colibacille" was already the chosen model organism of most molecular geneticists. The fact that Kluyver did not choose E. coli makes complete sense since in 1926 our beloved bacterium was just beginning its rise to prominence.
But why the elephant?? I can easily see why Monod could have been charmed by the elephant. I can almost hear him saying: "Ah, l'élégance de l'éléphant." Perhaps he had heard of Kluyver's phrase or some modified version of it. But why did Kluyver choose the elephant from among all animals?
Herbert Friedman, an outstanding biochemist, teacher, and historian of microbiology (who, coincidentally died almost exactly ten years ago so let this post be in his honor) wrote a "must-read" essay that describes Jan Kluyver's love for the "unity of biochemistry" and provides the best chronicle of the evolution of these elephant phrases. He proposes that Kluyver, having spent five years in the Dutch East Indies, had visited India and Sri Lanka and thus "elephants were on his mind." In my wishful thinking, I'd go one step further. Because if I had visited India and Sri Lanka, I would have not only seen elephants but would have (as I have done even without traveling there) become enamored with a key figure in the Hindu pantheon: the elephant-headed Ganeshawho is, among several other things, the patron of the sciences and arts! Whether Ganesha was instrumental in Kluyver's choice, I cannot tell. But I can tell you, it is certainly a reason I so much like the E. coli and Elephant motif.
Kluyver never used his phrase in any of his publications; we know about it from some of his lecture notes and it appears to have been part of his "lab speak" (Laborgespräch). In contrast, Monod, along with Jacob, did make use of his phrase in a very influential publication. It's their conclusion essay that closes the impressive collection of papers of the legendary 1961 Cold Spring Harbor Symposium Volume 26: Cellular Regulatory Mechanisms. Perhaps to connect from the universality of biochemistry to the possibility of the universality of the genetic code Jacob and Monod write:
"If the codes of Serratia and Escherichia and perhaps a few other bacterial genera turn out to be the same, the microbial-chemical-geneticists will be satisfied that it is indeed universal, by virtue of the well-known axiom that anything found to be true of E. coli must also be true of Elephants."
Here's food for thought. The title of this essay is: "Teleonomic Mechanisms in Cellular Metabolism, Growth, and Differentiation." Teleonomic? That's my adumbration of a future post. For now, I hope you enjoy the Elephants.