Cell's 30th Anniversary Retrospective

February 02, 2004

Looking Backward: Cell's 30th Anniversary Retrospective

Posted by Susan

Cell has a 30th anniversary supplement out this month. It features commentaries by scientists on their classic research papers, many of which completely revolutionized their relevant fields.

The list of papers reads like a syllabus for an ideal cell biology course, including:

  • Nusslien-Volhard and Driever's papers on the bicoid gradient in Drosophila embryos
  • the Horvitz lab (and others) on apoptosis
  • Elizabeth Blackburn on telomeres
  • Oudet and Chambon on the repeating structure of chromatin
and many others.

The most interesting aspect of such a retrospective is not the papers themselves (though if you're lazy like me, it's nice to be able to get important papers from the '70s and '80s on PDF); it's the commentaries. Generally, when learning about a given scientific topic, I prefer to learn about the history of the field--how the process was originally visualized, what evidence overturned the original model, how new models were developed, and so on--rather than covering each individual protein in a pathway from the standpoint of current knowledge. This is not to say that I think no class should ever follow the latter model--it's more or less necessary in lower-level classes--but particularly in graduate-level classes, an understanding of the progression of the field is essential to understand the current questions in the field.

Even aside from all didactic purposes, historical analyses of biological problems have an advantage over nuts-and-bolts approaches in that they're much more interesting--essentially, they're the biography of their field, which should involve liberal doses of mystery novel, logic puzzle, and (if the titles of the Cell commentaries are anything to go by) lots of bad puns. There's also a certain charm to seeing how much the field has changed--for example, it's inconceivable to me that there was a time when, as Christine Nusslein-Volhard writes, the theory of morphogen gradients was not widely accepted. It's also sort of fun to try to find "I-told-you-so" subtexts in Stanley Prusiner's commentary on his prions paper--actually, it would've been sort of fun to have an "I told you so!" issue. It's too bad that none of the appropriate Lynn Margulis papers seem to have been published in Cell.

Posted by Susan at February 2, 2004 01:13 AM
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