Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Nobel Laureates: Jacques Monod


The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1965.

"for their discoveries concerning genetic control of enzyme and virus synthesis"

Jacques Monod was a biochemist who shared the Nobel prize with François Jacob and André Lwoff for their work on understanding how genes work. Part of their contribution was demonstrating that mRNA was the key intermediate between genes and proteins. Part of it was their discovery of gene regulatory sequences and repression in the lac operon. They also worked on gene regulation during bacteriophage infection of E. coli.

Monod, who was born in 1910, led a very full life. He was active in the socialist movement in France and played an important role in the French resistance during World War II. He did most of his scientific work at the Pasteur Institute in Paris after the liberation of France in 1944.

I highly recommend Monod's Nobel Lecture "From Enzyme adaptation to allosteric transitions." It reveals a state of knowlege and understanding in 1965 that most of us don't appreciate. There are figures in the lecture, especially a diagram of allosteric transitions (with "relaxed" and "stressed" conformations), that are remarkably similar to what's in modern biochemistry textbooks.

In 1971 Monod published Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology (Le hasard et la nécessité). This insightful book influenced an entire generation of scientists. Monod died in 1976.
The privilege of living beings is the possession of a structure and of a mechanism which ensures two things: (i) reproduction true to type of the structure itself, and (ii) reproduction equally true to type, of any accident that occurs in the structure. Once you have that, you have evolution, because you have conservation of accidents. Accidents can then be recombined and offered to natural selection to find out if they are of any meaning or not.
                                                                Jacques Monod (1974) p.394


  1. Didn't Monod coin the term bricolage to describe biological structures - messy collections of molecules put together with hard to discern boundaries. Nothing like what the kooks out of that place on the West Coast like to make out biology to be?

  2. No, that's Monod's friend and long-time collaborator, François Jacob. The French word bricolage is usually translated as tinkering in English.

    Natural selection has no analogy with any aspect of human behavior. However, if one wanted to play with a comparison, one would have to say that natural selection does not work as an engineer works. It works like a tinkerer—a tinkerer who does not know esactly what he is going to produce but uses whatever he finds around him whether it be pieces of string, fragments of wood, or old cardboards; in short it works like a tinkerer who uses everything at his disposal to produce some kind of workable object.
    François Jacob (1977) p.1163