Health

James F. Crow in Genetics

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanDec 16, 2011 11:03 AM

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At 95 James F. Crow is not only an eminent population geneticist, but he knew the figures who were responsible for the whole field. The journal Genetics has commissioned a series of essays and perspectives in his honor. The first is by Daniel Hartl. I thought this was funny:

Soon after joining the program I asked Professor Crow whether I could join his lab as a graduate student. He thought for a moment and then said, “Yes, Dan, provided you understand that population genetics is a recondite field that will never be of great interest except to a small group of specialists.” I remember this because afterward I hurried to look up “recondite” in the dictionary. His admonition made population genetics seem like some variety of monasticism, which, being an admirer of Gregor Mendel, was all right by me. Little did either of us foresee that genetics would be transformed in our lifetimes by genomic sequencing on a population scale and the development of computer technologies capable of analyzing terabytes of data and that population genetics would become a key approach for understanding human evolutionary history as well as for identifying genetic risk factors for common diseases.

I had the privilege of interviewing Crow in 2006. My email requesting an interview was sent only on the smallest probability of a reply, but he replied immediately! And when I sent my questions again the reply was nearly immediate. My favorite of Crow's answers: "In my view it is wrong to say that research in this area -- assuming it is well done -- is out of order. I feel strongly that we should not discourage a line of research because someone might not like a possible outcome." At his age he's seen many fashions come and go. But nature abides and persists.

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