My parents grew up in Knoxville Tennessee and drove to Miami Florida for their honeymoon in 1946. After a few days of warm weather in the middle of winter they decided to stay. My father managed aluminum ingot sales throughout the Southeastern United States for Olin Mathieson Chemical Corporation. My mother worked as a secretary at a law firm. I was born in 1949 and my sister, Denise, who now lives in Dallas Texas, was born in 1951.
Although there was no history of science or medicine to be found in either of my parents’ families, and formal education for my parents ended with high school, they both encouraged my interest in science. They bought me the microscopes and telescopes I begged for and tolerated my destruction of a terra cotta floor with my chemistry set. I also had an interest in machinery and built a go-kart from a frame I found at a used bike store and a gasoline engine I unbolted from the family lawnmower. It was very crude — I ran a chain from a sprocket I put on the crankshaft directly to another on a rear half-axle. You pushed it to start it and then had to jump on and hit the gas to keep it from stalling. It would do about 30 mph and had poor brakes.
Our backyard was my jungle. There were private zoos in the area and animals were always escaping. I would find iguanas, parrots and toucans in our trees. There was also a strange plant with flowers that closed during the day and opened at night. When I was twelve or thirteen, my parents gave me a book on Darwin, evolution, and a range of biological mysteries. There was a description of biological clocks that control those flower movements and help birds and insects to navigate. The book made it clear that the location and composition of these clocks were completely unknown.
Our family moved to Dallas Texas when I was in high school. In 1971 I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. I stayed on for graduate school after a fascinating summer of research with Burke Judd. Genetic studies suggested the Drosophila genome contained only 5,000 or 6,000 genes – no more than many bacteria. I wanted to know if genes with subtle roles in the life of the fly had been missed. I collected randomly induced chromosome rearrangements and then asked whether each break was lethal or viable. What was the proportion? I thought I could look for subtle phenotypes in the non-lethal breaks after I had already collected them. When I was well into this project, Ron Konopka and Seymour Benzer reported their discovery of Drosophila circadian rhythm mutants at the period (per) locus. I realized one of my chromosome rearrangements broke the gene. That provided my doorway to cloning the gene a few years later.
I went to Dave Hogness’ lab at Stanford in 1975 for postdoctoral work and to learn how to do molecular biology. Methods for producing “Recombinant DNA” had just been introduced and Dave was applying these to Drosophila chromosomes. Thanks to Burke Judd I did not leave Texas alone. A few years earlier Burke had introduced me to an undergraduate student, Laurel Eckhardt. By this time we were inseparable, so while I worked with Dave Hogness, Laurel worked on a PhD with Len Herzenberg just down the hall.
When I started my lab at The Rockefeller University in 1978 I began to think about per again — was it premature to try to use molecular biology to study behavior? In 1983, together with a postdoc in the lab, Ted Bargiello, now at Einstein College of Medicine, I used my old chromosome rearrangements from Texas to locate and map the gene in a prolonged chromosome walk. Ted constructed segments of recombinant DNA, amplified them in bacteria, and I injected the purified DNA into per mutant (arrhythmic) Drosophila. Ted and I camped in the lab night and day to watch the fly activity patterns that would tell us if we had the gene. In those days activity data were collected on chart paper. As a fly began to walk, a pen would start to leave jagged lines of red ink. It took about twenty feet of chart paper and three or four days and nights to convince us we had transferred a functional per gene and restored circadian behavioral rhythms to the mutant fly. This was of course only the beginning of studies that were to occupy my interests for the next thirty years.
Today Laurel and I work within a few blocks of each other. Laurel is a Professor of Biology at Hunter College and oversees the Biology PhD programme for all campuses composing the City University of New York. We have two daughters. Natalie is a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania and Arissa is a medical student at Einstein College of Medicine.
23 September 2013 Hong Kong