Seeking biology's most beautiful

Science group is launching beauty pageant for biological experiments

By | July 23, 2003

Confident in the inherent beauty of the way biologists practice their craft, the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) is asking its members, and anyone else with an interest, to identify biology's most beautiful experiments. Inspired by a similar campaign held by Physics World to find the most beautiful physics experiments and by the 2001 Frederic Lawrence Holmes book, Meselson, Stahl, and the Replication of DNA: A History of The Most Beautiful Experiment in Biology, the AIBS is asking biologists to submit candidates for experimental biology's beauties through the end of 2003.

Those offering submissions must make their case in no more than 500 words. A panel of four judges, composed of scientists as well as historians and philosophers of science, will judge the entries, and the AIBS journal BioScience will feature the top picks in a series of essays commissioned from experts.

According to BioScience Editor Tim Beardsley, the AIBS has issued the challenge to help showcase the wide range of fields that AIBS represents and to generate interesting story ideas that BioScience editors otherwise may not have considered. AIBS also thought, quite simply, that the exercise would be enjoyable. Beardsley said that he expects anywhere from five to 20 essays.

There are no hard and fast criteria for what kinds of experiments can be considered "beautiful," said Beardsley. Holmes attributed the beauty of Matthew Meselson and Franklin Stahl's 1957 experiment, which demonstrated the semiconservative replication of DNA by measuring the densities of labeled strands, to its "essential simplicity." (The Meselson and Stahl experiment is the only one not eligible for submission.)

Although he hasn't yet decided on specific benchmarks, one of the judges, Scott F. Gilbert, a professor of biology at Swarthmore College, told The Scientist that he'll likely look for stylistic, elegant experiments that "combine things that other people hadn't thought of combining" and that have a "very clean and clear ability to distinguish between alternative answers," as was the case in the Meselson and Stahl experiment. The experiments chosen, Gilbert said, also should have a demonstrated importance in the field, should have pedagogical value, and should be written and presented well.

When teaching his students, Gilbert often cites a few particularly elegant experiments. They include, for example, a 1933 experiment by Hans Spemann and Oscar Schotte in which the German biologists illustrated the importance of genes for specifying organ formation. Spemann and Schotte transplanted tissue from a salamander embryo's jaw-forming region into frog embryos and vice versa. The resulting frog larvae had salamander jaws, and the resulting salamander larvae had frog jaws. The embryos had signaled "make a jaw," but the genes in that tissue only knew how to make the type of jaw that the genes would allow. The experiment beautifully and succinctly brought together the notions of epigenesis and preformation, said Gilbert, and showed that both were critical in making an embryo.

Gilbert, who emphasizes that he has no favorites going into the AIBS competition, suggests that experiments can be reduced to three areas: conception, execution, and interpretation. "What I hope to see in the beautiful experiment," he said, "is where each of those parts is really interesting and where you look at them and say, 'Why didn't I do that?'"

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