Bomber Harris

The Birth of the Cell

Henry Harris <em>Yale University Press, 212pp, £20</em>

Poor Sir Henry Harris, Regius Professor of Medicine Emeritus at Oxford, missed the bus. His greatest work was done in the years between Watson and Crick's landmark discovery of the DNA double helix and the inception of today's biotechnological revolution. His cell fusion experiments were presented to me as classics as an undergraduate, not all that long ago. He showed that immortalised human cancer cells could be fused with cells from the lowly hamster. The resulting "chimeras" would then randomly throw out some of their genetic make-up on particular chromosomes while retaining others to produce a human-hamster mixture, some of which would pick up the cancer's immortal phenotype. Those human chromosomes which turned up in all of the immortal chimeras would be the ones carrying the cancer gene. "Immortal chimeras" - this was the stuff of Greek mythology and science fiction.

Now, only a few years later, the entire human genome is close to being sequenced. Genes are routinely taken from one species and expressed in another. Humans can probably be cloned. Indeed, the nucleus from one of the cells of the elegantly senescing professor could be added to an anucleated egg of any female (his own granddaughter, if he liked), who could then give birth to the biological Harris himself. Biology has come so far in the past decade that it has completely annihilated the efforts of moral philosophers and legislators to keep pace.

We did not just arrive at this point by a miracle. It did not start with Watson and Crick, or even Darwin, but many centuries before. The Birth of the Cell traces the development of our understanding of the cellular basis of life. Our bodies are composed of billions of cells, each enclosed within a membrane and containing a nucleus with chromosomes composed of DNA which carry the genetically coded blueprint driving the development of each cell, and ultimately us.

Most individual cells are invisible to the naked eye, so the development of the microscope by the Englishman Robert Hooke in the 17th century was the primary invention in bringing us to where we are today. Harris catalogues the major discoveries of those who came after Hooke - and his study, scholarly and comprehensive, reads like a Who's Who of those men whose names have become eponymous with the structures they identified.

Some common misconceptions over who discovered what are also rectified. Most of the key observations were made in central Europe during the late 18th and 19th centuries, when Franco-Prussian rivalry dominated every aspect of life. It seems that the arrogant Germans belittled anything they came across from the flamboyant French, the clever Czechs or persecuted Jews. Through their own influential journals and texts they then took credit for all good ideas while writing the true innovators out of the picture. Harris, a talented linguist as well as a scientist, has trawled through many original manuscripts to put the record straight. His demolition of eminent Germans is so complete that one wonders if the true "bomber" Harris has finally revealed his identity.