Recorded: 04 Jun 2001
Well, [in the past] you hoped you could figure out the problem of what a mutation was and exactly what different kinds of mutations are, [but thought there was] not much you could do about them. Even then it was pretty clear that cancer was due to mutations, but you couldn’t sell that idea to anybody. [Herman] Muller understood it. The geneticists mostly felt that you couldn’t prove anything. [It was] too difficult to do that. That’s why Muller’s work on X-rays was so important. That got me interested very early in X-ray induction of cancer on people. I spent a lot of work on that but most of geneticists wouldn’t get near it.
[Over] fifty years genetics is different because knowing the DNA sequence of each organism enables one [with] tremendous speed to know what every gene is doing in the fly, and what every gene is doing in a human being, and how many are similar. We can figure most of these out without doing too much lab work. I spend a lot of time trying to analyze the DNA sequence for regions that are regulating the genes. There are genes that used to be thought of as proteins; DNA that coded for proteins [the] codes [that] DNA makes the protein through RNA and all that. [???] The DNA we work with [contains] a lot of genes that regulate where the proteins are made, for example. In a sense, proteins that I think are junk is where they are made, when they are made, and that’s not determined with the proteins, the proteins can’t decide that. There is DNA that is near the gene, that is part of the gene; DNA that’s not coating for the protein; DNA that binds to other proteins and turns that protein on or off at the right time. It’s a very complicated thing [and] it’s possible to analyze it, but I think, it’s so vast. The DNA with the genes that we work with, that you need a computer system to work with, to try to figure out which protein is going to regulate, which protein is going to be made… Once you find that out, then biochemists can check it out and find out if it’s true or not. But we work on these genes that are homologous between fruit flies and every other animal making the head, thorax and abdomen and that’s the outlook on biological and animal life. Namely, all of the other higher animals are nothing more than a head, thorax, and abdomen. That may be it but there really isn’t much variation in the animal world. There isn’t, there isn’t at all. You may get a long neck on a giraffe but it’s still a neck.
Edward B. Lewis (1918-2004) was a renowned leader in genetics and Drosophila development research. He received his Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology in 1942. He served as captain of the United States Army Air Force from 1942-1945 as a meteorologist and an oceanographer in the Pacific Theatre. In 1946, he joined the Caltech faculty and was appointed Professor of Biology in 1956, earning a Thomas Hunt Morgan Professorship in 1966. In 1995, Lewis won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for discoveries concerning the genetic control of early embryonic development” along with Christiane Nusslein-Volhard and Eric Wieschaus. Lewis is also a recipient of the Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal (1983), the Gairdner Foundation International award (1987), the Wolf Foundation prize in medicine (1989), the Rosenstiel award (1990) and the National Medal of Science (1990).