Tag Archives: biography

Brilliant Colors and Barbara McClintock

Since it’s the functional end of Fall, I figured I should at least give a quick nod that I’ve been meaning to do all season.


Around here you see dried maize a lot-often sold in bundles for Autumn decorations. I love the colors and the textures. They always make me think of apples (and the grudge that I didn’t get a single proper caramel apple this year) and gourds and Barbara McClintock.


(Shown here in a mixed media portrait by the fantastic chid0ri-take a spin through the galleries over there.)


She won a Nobel Prize in 1983 for her discovery of transposable genetic elements. The acknowledgement was a long time coming, it was for work that she’d essentially wrapped up by the early 1950s.


Barbara McClintock got her PhD from Cornell in 1927. In the 40s she began to concentrate on studying the inheritance of color in maize. In 1948 she discovered that two specific gene locations could physically swap locations.


She developed a theory that these mobile pieces regulated genes by either keeping them silent or allowing them to express themselves. It was these transposable elements-transposons (or jumping genes) that caused the fun colors and striping in maize.


Transposons are sequences of DNA that can move to new places within the genome of a cell. So calling them jumping genes, while fun to stay and more likely to stay in your mind, is not strictly accurate. They aren’t properly genes but instead known as mobile genetic elements.


Most scientists of her time were skeptical of her work. They credited her excellent microscope work but either argued that she’d misinterpreted something or else that such movement was yet another quirk of the corn species. (Whose genetics were already known to be complicated and irregular.)


She kept researching but stopped publishing her work by the 1950s, since it seemed that no one was inclined to pay attention to her discoveries. Her work was finally recognized decades later.

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John William Waterhouse's image of Cleopatra

I’m currently reading the new biography of Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff. Rather like the Bill Bryson biography of Shakespeare (an excellent quick fun-yes really it is-read) it is at least as much about dispelling myths as it is about giving facts. (Not that I don’t enjoy the outlandish Shakespearean or Pre-Raphaelite renditions…) There is a good bit of ‘well, they say *this*, which is actually unlikely due to *that*, so here’s a best guess…’

I have a hunch that aspect is going to annoy some people, but that’s how history works. We very rarely know *anything* for certain; as the famous adage goes, history is written by the winners. So a fair best-guess probability with explanations of why and who and how and where to look further works for me.

I also enjoy her quiet moments of snark. She won me over in the first few pages by explaining Cleopatra’s heritage (as Larry Gonick pointed out, she’s several generations of Greek inbreeding) and summing it up by saying that Cleopatra was about as Egyptian as Elizabeth Taylor.

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Filed under Books, Historical Facts and Trivia