If It's Tuesday, This Must Be the Galapagos

Researcher Diana Bianchi is writing about her world tour of the movers and shakers in the history of genetics
Genetics illustration
Illustration: Jon Cannell
April 25, 2011

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In a Hawaiian delicatessen in the 1970s, two scientists scribbling on a napkin hatched an idea that opened the door to modern biotechnology. That may sound like an episode of the TV series Lost, but it’s really the story of how the genetics researchers Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen discovered a way to produce specific strands of DNA in large quantities—the basis of genetic engineering.

Diana W. Bianchi, a professor of pediatrics at Tufts School of Medicine, wanted to find that deli. A geneticist by profession and history buff by avocation, Bianchi has made dozens of pilgrimages to the sites where genetics history took place. Now she’s detailing her experiences in a book—the working title is A Travel Guide to the History of Genetics and Genomics—that will take readers from Darwin’s home in England to that Honolulu deli, and many stops in between.

“I originally conceived the book as a cut-and-dried travel guide,” she says. “But I found along the way it became instead a personal travelogue, and a telling of the stories behind the discoveries.”

Bianchi first thought of writing the guide in 1990, when she visited the garden where Gregor Mendel discovered the rules of inheritance. A scholar and Augustinian monk, Mendel lived in St. Thomas’s Abbey in Brno, about 130 miles outside of Prague in the Czech Republic—still an active monastery that also houses the Mendel Museum of Genetics. He made his discoveries in the mid-1800s by cross-breeding pea plants with different physical characteristics and charting those traits through subsequent generations.

“I just had this epiphany being in the church where Mendel had worked,” says Bianchi of the inspiration for her book, which occurred before the Internet took off. “I thought, ‘How many people even know how to get here?’ ”

“I just had this epiphany being in the church where Mendel had worked,” says Diana Bianchi of the inspiration for her book. Photo: Alonso NicholsVisiting the abbey, where you can still listen to the monks chanting, left Bianchi with a much better understanding of Mendel’s life and work. Though the abbey is in the middle of a bustling town, Bianchi had imagined a bigger building in a rural setting. “The garden was very small, maybe 10 by 12 feet,” she says. “Think about all the discoveries that came out of this fairly small plot.”

Bianchi, who is the Natalie V. Zucker Professor of Pediatrics, Obstetrics and Gynecology and vice chair for research in the department of pediatrics at the Floating Hospital for Children, works at the leading edge of genetics herself. She recently completed the second edition of the award-winning textbook Fetology: Diagnosis and Management of the Fetal Patient. In 2004, she and her colleagues discovered that fetal cells remain in the mother’s blood and tissue for decades after the child’s birth and could be a source of stem cells to repair tissue injury in the mother.

Hands-on Science

An antiques collector in her free time, Bianchi loves artifacts from the past and once volunteered on the set of the PBS program Antiques Roadshow. “I’m interested in the very old and the very new,” she says. “What ties them together are the stories from the past and how they inform the future.”

One of those tales centers on Hugo DeVries, a Dutch botanist who was internationally renowned at the turn of the 19th century. He hypothesized that inherited traits are carried via particles he called “pangenes,” the term we’ve since shortened to “genes.” Working without knowledge of Mendel’s findings, DeVries rediscovered the rules of inheritance.

Bianchi knew that DeVries spent the last 30 years of his life in Lunteren, in the Netherlands, where he died in 1935. But when she and a Dutch colleague visited the town, no signs or plaques even mentioned DeVries, arguably the town’s most famous resident. “This man was a scientific rock star,” says Bianchi. “His funeral was a major international event, but today there’s nothing to indicate that he had been a prominent citizen.”

Looking for a display about the legendary scientist in the Lunteren historical museum, Bianchi and her colleague were directed to a pile of news clippings in a closet. They found a picture postcard of DeVries’s lab, with its enormous glass greenhouses. They knew they had seen the building in their travels, but weren’t sure where. Retracing their steps, they found the property, now a private home, on a street not far from the museum.

The new owner, who knew about her home’s illustrious former occupant, happened to be outside gardening, and after talking with Bianchi, gave her a few pieces of glass she had collected from the yard, all that remained of the greenhouses.

In a subsequent visit to the archives at the University of Amsterdam, where DeVries taught, Bianchi was able to peruse his notebooks and papers, including a letter Charles Darwin wrote to DeVries about root contraction in parsnip plants. Holding it in her hands, Bianchi says, “was an incredible thrill.”

From Darwin to the Hawaiian Deli

Among the other genetics pioneers Bianchi plans to include in her book is a New England farm boy who attended Tufts. Raised on a Maine dairy farm, Victor A. McKusick—known today as the father of medical genetics—studied biology here as an undergraduate. A member of the class of 1944, McKusick never completed college. He was accepted to Johns Hopkins Medical School after only six undergraduate semesters under a special wartime provision.

McKusick went on to teach at Johns Hopkins, and in 1957 was the founding chair of the division of medical genetics there. He taught and practiced until his death in 2008. (Tufts awarded him an honorary doctor of science degree in 1978.) His work identifying the underlying causes of genetic disorders, including Marfan syndrome, the connective tissue disorder characterized by long, thin limbs, and dwarfism, prompted McKusick to propose, in the early 1960s, the mapping of the human genome. That feat was not accomplished until 2001.

While on a trip to give the inaugural Victor A. McKusick Lecture at Maine Medical Center in Portland, in celebration of the Tufts School of Medicine’s Maine Track in 2009, Bianchi traveled to his childhood home in Parkman. McKusick’s nephew gave her a tour of the dairy farm. As a medical geneticist, Bianchi met professionally with McKusick many times. His catalogs of genetic disorders, one of which he autographed for her, line her office shelves.

Souvenirs from the genetics history world tour. Photo: Alonso NicholsOf course, no history of genetics would be complete without a trip to Charles Darwin’s home, now a national historical site and museum in rural Kent, in southeast England. Bianchi visited Down House last fall. Still evident was the circular dirt path that Darwin walked while working out the theory of evolution. “It was November; I was the only person visiting. I could hear sheep bleating in the background, and I was literally walking the same steps as Darwin,” Bianchi recalls.

Her pursuit of Darwin didn’t end there. She also visited Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. Darwin landed on Tierra del Fuego during his voyage on the HMS Beagle, and the naturalist and the vessel both left their marks. “There are weird homages to Darwin and the Beagle that you wouldn’t appreciate unless you know this history,” Bianchi says. Among them is a local brew called Beagle Beer, which has an 18th-century ship on its label. “Darwin is there in spirit,” Bianchi says.

And what about that Hawaiian deli? After confirming with Stanley Cohen that the late-night meeting did actually occur, Bianchi set out to find where it took place. She learned that the deli was converted into a jewelry store, and in 2009, the entire block was bulldozed to make way for a mall.

Bianchi’s not sure exactly what stands there today, but as far as she knows, the birthplace of biotechnology has yet to be acknowledged. Her book could change that. “Visiting these sites has a definite spiritual quality,” she says. “For many scientists, science is their religion, so I think that’s what it means to me.”

Jacqueline Mitchell can be reached at jacqueline.mitchell@tufts.edu.