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Editorial: Beautiful Biology

July 1, 2004

Timothy M. Beardsley

During 2003, BioScience invited readers to nominate worthy candidates for a short list of "the most beautiful biology experiments" in history. We thank our readers for their nominations, from among which we have selected two for recognition. Herewith we announce the first two entries on the BioScience "most beautiful" list, in order of their publication:

  • The demonstration of selection on melanic and nonmelanic forms of the peppered moth, by H. B. D. Kettlewell: "Selection Experiments on Industrial Melanism in the Lepidoptera" (Heredity 9: 323-342 [1955]) and "Further Selection Experiments on Industrial Melanism in the Lepidoptera" (Heredity 10, 287-301 [1956]).
  • The experiments that demonstrated the triplet nature of the genetic code, by F. H. C. Crick, Leslie Barnett, S. Brenner, and R. J. Watts-Tobin: "General Nature of the Genetic Code for Proteins" (Nature 192: 1227-1232 [1961]).

We decline to call either of these experiments "the winner"; we maintain only that they are worthy contenders for recognition among those nominated. We plan to publish appreciative essays on both of them in coming months.

Kettlewell's work on industrial melanism in the moth Biston betularia has provided key textbook examples of natural selection in the wild for almost 50 years. Kettlewell used field techniques to compare sites polluted by industrial soot with unpolluted sites. He also used mark-recapture experiments, photography of predation, population genetic analysis, and artificial selection experiments in aviaries. Together these provided a clear-cut, conceptually simple demonstration of the power of directional selection. Equally important, he demonstrated plausible agency--differential predation--for directional change in light and dark forms of the moth. Even though aspects of Kettlewell's work on industrial melanism remain interestingly controversial, the experiments represent a beautiful drawing together of findings gained by diverse techniques to yield a powerful result.

The article by Crick and colleagues shows great elegance in bringing minimal data to bear on a well-defined problem and drawing out, decisively, the powerful theoretical implications of those data. At the same time, it integrates an enormous amount of background information from very diverse sources in order to maximize the power of the experimental findings in resolving a fundamental issue about the genetic code.

We thank our panel of expert advisers for this project: Richard Burian, professor of philosophy and science and technology studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University; Jane Maienschein, regent's professor of philosophy and biology at Arizona State University; Scott F. Gilbert, professor of biology at Swarthmore College; and John Beatty, professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia.

We were surprised that few field experiments were nominated and regret that we cannot honor more of them and other experiments here. But alert readers may have noticed the weasel word "first" in the opening paragraph. Because we would like to continue this exercise, we will consider future nominations for the honor roll. These should be accompanied by a citation to an account of the experiment in English and a short statement (up to 500 words) of why it should be considered one of the most beautiful in biology. BioScience hopes that this effort will expand the appreciation of all types of biology by students, the general public, and professionals.

Timothy M. Beardsley
Editor-in-Chief

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