Rough Phage in the Diet

Over the years, I have heard several variants of the Brenner/Zinder story. To summarize, Norton Zinder isolated the f2 phage which contains an RNA genome.

Bearing in mind how little was known in 1960, when Zinder isolated bacteriophage f2; the discovery of RNA phages had great potential for use in the study of fundamental molecular processes, such as protein synthesis, including its initiation and termination. Clearly, there were good reasons why molecular biologists of the day, including Brenner, wanted to obtain their own samples of f2 phage. So, as the legend goes, Brenner, among others, requested a sample of f2 from Zinder. And, Zinder wrote back to all, saying that the phage was not available.

So, cranky Zinder wouldn’t share his discovery. But…

… here is the delightful part of the story. Knowing how carefree researchers can be in the laboratory, Brenner is said to have dipped Zinder’s letter in a culture of E. coli (the f2 host), thereby readily growing up a stock of f2 for himself.

So, the virus was on the letter Zinder sent out saying they couldn’t have the virus. What would you call this? Epistolary transduction? Corresponduction?

Unfortunately, the story isn’t true:

Brenner also confesses that he might have added to the original myth by hinting that the story actually might be true. In reality, Brenner isolated many RNA phages himself by taking sewerage from the Cambridge, Massachusetts, sewer treatment plant and plating it on bacteria expressing a sex factor.

Never underestimate the allure of a good story. Scientists are as susceptible to urban legends and memes as anyone else.

Read the whole story on Leonard Norkin’s blog.