THE HUMAN CONDITION

Could This Man Manufacture 3,000,000 Trudeaus?

ALEXANDER ROSS March 1 1971
THE HUMAN CONDITION

Could This Man Manufacture 3,000,000 Trudeaus?

ALEXANDER ROSS March 1 1971

Could This Man Manufacture 3,000,000 Trudeaus?

THE HUMAN CONDITION

A SAINT is SOMEONE who has achieved a remote human possibility. It is impossible to say what that possibility is. I think it has something to do with the energy of love. Contact with this energy results in the exercise of a kind of balance in the chaos of existence. A saint does not dissolve the chaos; if he did the world would have changed long ago. 1 do not think that a saint dissolves the chaos even for himself, for there is something arrogant and warlike in the notion of a man setting the universe in order. It is a kind of balance that is his glory. He rides the drifts like an escaped ski. His course is a caress of the hill . . . Something in him so loves the world that he gives himself to the laws of gravity and chance.

-LEONARD COHEN

Well, maybe we were a bit stoned, which tends to make the most ordinary objects seem interesting. But I swear that when I looked through the double-optical microscope in David Suzuki’s genetics laboratory at the University of British Columbia — this was after a party at Suzuki’s house — I swear it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.

It was an ordinary fruit fly. Drosophila melanogaster, smaller than a mosquito, a flying insect so tiny, so insignificant that you’d hardly bother to swat him if he landed on your cheek. Drosophila are everywhere. They breed by the billions, they feed on rotting fruit and, in their threeweek lifespan, they cause no harm to anybody. Unless you happen to be a geneticist, they will not interest you very much. They have no astonishing social habits like ants, they do not whine or bite or suck blood like mosquitoes, they are not conspicuous enough to disgust you, like houseflies. Truly a nothing insect, you would suppose, until you saw him up close, as I did, under a microscope.

And then, suddenly, you are reminded of what you learned in Sunday school: that even the humblest of God’s creatures are miracles.

His eyes! You would never have guessed this, but Drosophila's eyes are bright cherry red; under magnification you can see each of the hundreds of individual facets that make up the eye. It looks like a large bicycle-reflector. His wings are beautiful, too — two irridescent, soap-bubble membranes interlaced with a delicate network of veins. His body is a pale, luminous yellowish-brown, and it shines like hot wax. Underneath each wing he has a little fleshy globe, as though someone had embedded a marble beneath his skin. These are the fly’s halteres, vestigial organs of flight, an evolutionary hangover from the time mil-

David Suzuki is a scientist who can shape flies to order in a laboratory. Some day, he worries, scientists may fabricate people, too

ALEXANDER ROSS

lions of years ago when most flies had four wings; Drosophila, you see, is an improvement on the original model.

He has hair all over him. Hairs, actually — fat black bristles jutting out from his head, his thorax, his legs. Geneticists can practically count these bristles. They know what constitutes a normal complement of hair on a fruit fly. Any variation means a mutant.

There are several million cells in a fruit fly’s body, and they behave very much as do the three trillion-odd cells in your body or mine. Each cell is a tiny universe of knowledge and complexity. Each contains eight chromosomes (human cells have 46) that you can see through a high-powered microscope. In the nucleus of a Drosophila cell, the chromosomes contain three pairs of rods, straight or bent, and a couple of dots. These bland-looking structures are composed of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), and each chromosome is made up of thousands of genes, which are long stretches of DNA molecules. A gene isn’t a thing; it’s a chemical process that conveys instructions to the cell. This DNA molecule is one of the most complex molecules in nature. (James Watson and Francis Crick, the two men who merely figured out its shape, won a Nobel prize for their achievement in 1962.) The DNA molecule consists of two long chains of chemicals. These two chains spiral around each other (“The double helix,” Watson called it), the constituent chemicals on one chain lining up with their opposite numbers on the other. There can be as many as a billion such chemical links in the DNA chain, and each link represents an actual piece of information, a coded instruction that tells each cell what it is going to become. Maybe, somewhere deep inside the rods and dots that Suzuki can see through his microscope, hidden somewhere in that intimate minuet of DNA molecules, are many of life’s secrets. Because Drosophila is so simple genetically, and because he breeds so fast, he’s the ideal laboratory animal for those who propose to unravel the secrets.

“You never get tired of looking at flies,” said Rachel, the girl who was showing us through the lab. Rachel is a biologist who spends her days breeding mutant Drosophila in little bottles, then peering through a microscope to inspect the results: Drosophila with warped eyes, Drosophila with their bristles running in the wrong direction, Drosophila with feet growing out of their heads instead of antennae. “People think it must be dull, pushing flies all day. But the flies are so beautiful, and the science of it is wonderful . . .” This was around two in the morning, but there

were still a couple of graduate students working in Suzuki's lab. Rachel herself, who had prepared all the food for Suzuki’s party, planned to work right through until morning on a paper she had to deliver the next day. People get hooked on fruit flies, you see, utterly intoxicated. They can take over your mind. Suzuki has dreams about Drosophila, but in his dreams the insects are never monstrous or threatening. They are gentle and benign, these fruit flies he dreams about; they are good fairies with bright wings.

David Suzuki is 35 years old, and his genes would be a definite asset in one of those sperm banks that some of his colleagues are already talking about establishing. Some minute concatenation of chemicals in the DNA molecules in each of his three trillion cells has made him very, very good at what he does. In the fly trade, as in any other trade, perhaps 70% of the practitioners are decent, practical men who have made their own peace with their own limitations. Competence is expected of them, nothing more. The other 30% are the mutants, the Cohen saints, the people who invest a lot of themselves, and win or lose a lot in return. Suzuki has invested plenty in fruit flies. His work is his life, a situation that has (a) broken up his marriage and (b) made him one of the fly trade’s brightest young men.

Suzuki is an overreacher. He gets to his lab in UBC’s Biological Sciences Building around 10 a.m., weekends included, and seldom goes home before one or two in the morning. During that 15-hour day he will teach several classes, spend several hours reading or rapping with the graduate students in his lab or playing touch football on the lawn outside. He may also spend some time on his expanding media commitments.

He is an absolute flash on the tube — a natural performer whose passion for science comes across as well on TV as it does in the lecture room. His Vancouver-produced TV show, Suzuki On Science, has been showing nationally on the CBC network since January. If he chooses, Suzuki could become one of the Great Canadian Talking Heads of the 1970s.

But the media thing is an encroachment. Suzuki may look like a HaightAshbury version of Fu Manchu, he may dazzle a lot of chicks (honest — they line up sometimes in the hallway outside his tiny office, all these sorority girls who look like Joni Mitchell and are having problems with their term papers. Although Suzuki denies the charge, he must be the only geneticist in the world who has honest-toGod groupies following him around.) But you must not suppose from this

that he is anything but super-serious about his work.

“Sure,” says Suzuki, “I may spend 100, sometimes 150, hours a week in the lab. But to call it work is a misnomer. It’s a way of life. It’s not an avoidance thing either. It’s a positive choice. Nine times out of 10 I’d rather go to the lab than to a movie, because I’ll enjoy the lab more.

“My love is the lab. But, you know, I count the time I spend playing volleyball as lab time. It’s . . . total. Like last summer was probably the happiest period of my life. For a couple of months there I got into the schedule where I was working until seven or eight in the morning, then going home to sleep till noon, then coming back to the lab.

“And it was beautiful, because there were four of us in the lab regularly, all night every night. And around 3 or 4 a.m. we’d drive off campus for coffee, and we were involved in the most incredible rap sessions! You know, ideas were dropping out all the time . . .

“For instance, I’d been sort of turning over an experiment in my mind. It’s too tricky to explain, but it has to do with pairing, and chromosomes breaking and exchanging pieces. Anyhow, we were rapping in this all-night restaurant and one of my students said, ‘How about this?’ and I said, ‘Wow! oh wow!’ and — that was it and blam! — we went off . . .”

For this particular experiment, it took Suzuki two weeks to work out on paper the intricate combinations and recombinations of genetic events that should occur under the conditions he was postulating. Then he set to work breeding Drosophila according to the theoretical specifications that began at that 3 a.m. coffee break. After breeding seven generations, which took six months, he got the answer he wanted. The seventh-generation flies exhibited the predicted characteristics. Suzuki went home happy. He’d devised an elegant theory in his mind, then proved it in the lab.

Suzuki’s role in the lab is as moderator and full-time presence. He is a born teacher, one of those lucky people who is capable of communicating enthusiasm. So even when he doesn’t look as if he’s working — he may be just sitting in his office with a few students, smoking those Indian cigarettes called biris that give you a mild (but perfectly legal) high — he is on the job: “It’s very important that I be in the lab pushing flies myself, even though I’ve got lots of students, lots of technicians, who can do it for me. You know, when you’re looking through the microscope, you see things someone else might overlook.

“Like, a while back I noticed a pe-

culiar thing with a particular strain of female Drosophila. I’d etherized these females and, when I looked at them through a microscope, every one of those flies had an egg hanging out her ass! I tried it again the next day. Same thing! Now, that’s a kind of trivial observation, except that I’d discovered a hereditary characteristic that caused the female, when etherized, to contract her abdomen and squeeze an egg out.

“I found that, by etherizing them every 90 minutes, every single female would pop an egg! Normally, you just throw females in a vial and collect 100 eggs. But now you can get eggs in the exact order in which they’re laid. It’s a very cute tool. It’s created a lot of interest. I call it The Egg Popper, and I wouldn’t have found it if I hadn’t been hanging around the lab.”

There is another thing about Suzuki’s genes. They come from Japan. His embryo was developing around the time the Japanese government was starting to think about a Sphere of Co-Prosperity in Greater East Asia. During that process, some minute linkage between chains of amino acids within the nuclei of his cells commanded that Suzuki’s eyes grow differently from yours or mine. Other sentences in the genetic code — which some researchers say has a direct chemical correspondence to language, with words, sentences and even punctuation — decreed that his skin be slightly tawny, his hair perfectly black.

Because of these tiny genetic events, Suzuki spent four years of his childhood living with his mother and two sisters in a tiny room in an abandoned hotel in the resurrected ghost town of Slocan, in the BC interior. Several hundred other Canadians, because they shared Suzuki’s genetic configuration, were living in this place. They ate and bathed together. Mounties patrolled the streets in cars. Suzuki and his family and many other Canadians whose eyes looked like Suzuki’s spent the war years in such places, which were known as detention centres.

You could also call them concentration camps, and their establishment commanded wide public support. Suzuki’s primary-school teachers were teen-agers, conscripted to do the job. After the war, the Canadians who occupied these detention centres were given the choice of remaining in Canada or being shipped to Japan. Suzuki’s grandparents and an uncle chose to return. The grandparents died within two years, because it was very difficult for old people to survive in postwar Japan. Suzuki’s father declined to sign the paper that would have put him and his family on the next boat, a decision that aroused much enmity

among those who had signed. The family finally settled in London, Ontario, for a fresh start -— the family’s dry-cleaning business had evaporated when they were interned — and there David Suzuki went through school and tried to work out some very painful hang-ups.

“In high school, I was super-Jap. I was very conscious of being Japanese, and I was ashamed of being Japanese. I was ashamed of my parents because they were so Japanese. I was afraid to date white girls because I was Japanese — you know, it really fouled me up. I was ashamed of my eyes particularly. I wanted to dye my hair — you know, really an unbelievable kind of self-hatred. It’s only in the past 10 years, say, that I’ve really tried to get out of this, at tremendous expense. One thing about the evacuation and imprisonment, nobody can measure the’psychological damage it did.”

Suzuki took refuge in scholarship. He breezed through high school, won a scholarship to Amherst College, Massachusetts. He majored in biology because he planned to become a doctor. Then, in his third year, he took an introductory course in genetics. “It was the most incredible experience of my life. I’d sit there for the whole hour, absolutely enthralled. My mouth was hanging open! I had a superb teacher, a man named William Hexter, a really superb teacher. It was so concise, so mathematical, so straightforward. And so beautiful!” Outside the chaos of his head, Suzuki had found something pure.

Then: a doctorate in less than three years at the University of Chicago. One year as a researcher at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where Suzuki got very involved in the civil-rights movement. He became the only non-black member of the local branch of the NAACP. The segregation thing bothered him. He was doing brilliant work, but his political involvement assumed a distressing form: he sometimes vomited when he saw a Whites Only sign. His wife told him they’d better get out. He took the first job available in Canada, at the University of Alberta. The next year, 1963, he transferred to UBC. At the age of 34 he was made a full professor. In an award for the “Master Teacher” on campus, Suzuki was runner-up. The winner was Walter Gage, now UBC’s president. In 1969 Suzuki won the E. W. R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship, the top award for scientists under 35 in Canada.

Suzuki’s fly lab is already the biggest in the country. He keeps getting offers from the U. S., usually at double the salary and quadruple the research budget. One university offered him $30,000 a year, no teaching du-

‘Make me a dictator and in three generations I could give you a race of people that you wouldn’t recognize!’

ties and triple the laboratory space. Since Suzuki wants to learn to fly, they also offered to pay for his lessons and buy him a half interest in an airplane. Suzuki said no, partly because he wishes to stay in Canada, but also because he doesn't want to live in the United States again.

The main reason for all this extravagant attention is an article published in the April, 1967, issue of the Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, under the byline of Suzuki and five of his research associates, forbiddingly entitled TemperatureSensitive Mutations In Drosophila Melanogaster I. Relative Frequencies Among Gamma-Ray And Chemically-Induced Sex-Linked Recessive Lethals And Semi-Lethals.

Now you cannot really say that this paper blew the mind of every single

fly freak from Tulare to Vladivostok. But practically every fly man in the world knows about that paper now, and Suzuki’s achievement is generally regarded as very creative. “Elegant” is a word they use a lot.

What he did was breed a mutant strain of fruit fly that lives happily at normal room temperature, but which drops dead when the temperature is raised a few degrees. These temperature-sensitive lethals (TSLs) had been observed in random batches of Drosophila mutants as early as the 1930s. But no one had ever set out systematically to produce them and, says their proud parent, “a lot of people thought we were crazy to try.”

By exposing flies to ethyl methanesulfonate, a chemical that induces mutations, then breeding the offspring at various temperatures, Suzuki got

what he was after within a month. He’d been prepared to make 10,000 crosses before abandoning the project; so he was lucky. A Berkeley PhD named Leonie Piternick, one of his research associates, was the person who rushed into Suzuki’s office with the news that the experiment had succeeded. “And the night we heard our paper had been accepted for publication, Leonie jumped into my arms and kissed me. We bought a lot of champagne that night,” he says.

The UBC team has been building on this achievement ever since. Besides the TSLs that die at 29° Centigrade, they’ve produced other strains whose offspring die at various stages of development when subjected to the higher temperature. They’ve bred strains that are sterile at the higher temperature, but breed normally at cooler temperatures. They’ve even bred temperature-sensitive mutants whose eye can be selectively distorted.

In fact, .the distortion pattern can be made to move in a “wave” across the eye, which makes this particular mutant an enormously useful laboratory tool. For the first time, Drosophila researchers can easily ascertain when, in the growth process, various genes are dormant and when they are activated.

Most interesting of all, they’ve recently produced a Drosophila mutant which behaves normally at 22° Centigrade, but becomes paralyzed at 29°. This is an amazing bug. Suzuki will show you a vial full of them; you can see them flitting around inside. Then, when you grasp the vial in your hand, the flies fall to the bottom, wholly paralyzed. The heat of your hand is what does it; take your hand away and they’ll start flying again. This particular insight could have important implications for muscular distrophy research. It is a genetic disease, and Suzuki’s team is now trying to find out if the paralysis they’ve bred into their flies comes from the muscles or from the nerves.

The UBC work is an important step toward answering one of the last great remaining riddles in genetics: How do cells communicate? Every cell in your body is genetically identical. So what causes one cell to become part of your knee, another to become part of your nose? Scientists know that the billion-link DNA chains, through a series of intricate chemical reactions, cause some cellular changes to occur at certain times, and not to occur at others. In effect, the chromosome is reading, in sequence, from a book of instructions. But how is this information communicated? What would happen if you tinkered with the order in which the pages were turned?

The implications of questions like

these both enthrall and frighten David Suzuki. The state of the art has advanced at an accelerating rate since Mendel published his first experiments on plant genetics in 1865. Could the genetic engineers go too far and learn too much?

“You’re damned right we could,” says Suzuki. “It’s not science-fiction, man. Hell, did you know that last May a guy at MIT produced a synthetic gene? Now he’s talking about tying it on to a virus, and using that virus as a micro-syringe to inject the artificial gene into a bacterial cell and find out whether it works.

“Look, genetics and the biological sciences are creating the tools that are going to give somebody final control. If you can program people at will, if you can spread viruses that will produce human mutations to cripple the mind or body, you’ve got the ultimate weapon. You don’t have to use something messy like bombs or napalm — just spread this invisible thing from a plane. A lot of people say this is too far in the future to worry about. I say it’s right around the corner.

“There’s another guy in New York, Sol Spiegelman, who’s concerned about cancer, and he’s been able to get what he calls a self-replicating magic bullet! These are pieces of virus that replicate 70 times faster than normal. These copies don’t do anything; they’re just interested in turning out more copies. The idea is that if you infect cancer cells with these pieces, they’ll suck up all the goodies inside, and the cell will die. It’s a beautiful idea, but the thing that freaks me is Spiegelman’s choice of metaphors. A bullet can have other targets than cancer tissue, you know, and one can conceive of all sorts of little pieces of replicating material that you could spray from an airplane . . .”

Suzuki doesn’t think we’ll see the ultimate science-fiction fantasy, lifecreated-in-a-test-tube, in this century. But “cloning” — growing an identical twin of somebody from a single cell taken from their body — could be as little as 20 years away. That’s right — two million Stanfields or three million Trudeaus: they’ve already done it with frogs.

“But already,” Suzuki says, “you can do tremendous things with selective breeding — with eugenics. Make me a dictator with power to say who mates with whom, and in three generations I could give you a race of people that you wouldn’t recognize! You want them beautiful, super-intelligent, docile? Whatever you want! In one generation I could give you a human being that would live on the average 20 years longer than we do today.

“BC and Alberta already have eu-

genics legislation for sterilizing mental incompetents. But there’s no geneticist on the board that decides who gets their tubes tied. We can already analyze the cells of an unborn child and tell whether that embryo is defective. So what does this lead to? Do you abort an albino? A mongoloid? And who decides?

“You know, if we got into a crunch with Red China, I could see this thing extended very easily. People would be hollering for sterilization of every Asian in the country. And they’d do it, man! They’d do it!”

Does Suzuki strike you as perhaps a trifle paranoid? Perhaps you’d be paranoid too if (a) your genes had earned you four years in a Canadian concentration camp or (b) your genes came from a country that had two atomic bombs dropped on it by white men applying the latest scientific technology, or even (c) if you had been down at a recent Berkeley demonstration, as Suzuki was, and taken a load of police buckshot in your ass while helicopters circled above you and the rooftops were lined with soldiers manning machine guns.

Two years ago, these preoccupations caused Suzuki to quit science. He’d split with his wife and three children several years earlier, he was into one of the unhappiest spaces of his life, and he became obsessed with the terrifying implications of what he was doing in the laboratory. “I didn’t quit work,” he says, “but I resigned in my head.”

After a year, he decided his fears for mankind’s future were really a projection of his fears for his own future. He also decided that scientific knowledge per se is “neutral.” It’s the use governments make of it that is dangerous. That doesn’t mean scientists should be blind to the implications of their work. They should continue to do their thing — but fight like hell as citizens and as scientists against the misuse of the knowledge they discover.

I enjoy David Suzuki because he is the most accessible scientist I have ever met. Because he is so articulate about his craft, it’s possible to see him and every scientist for what they are — not as remote automatons in white lab coats, but as intelligent, anguished, noble, petty, screwed-up, talented, ordinary human beings.

Like Cohen’s saint, Suzuki possesses a sort of energy of love. It is present in his lab. His life is his work. And his work is an enclosed space where there is purity and precision and beauty, the ordered dance of genes. For Suzuki, this is what supplies his balance against the confusion and despair of the larger human organism. □