François Jacob

By Grant Jacobs 22/04/2013

A few days ago François Jacob died. You could say that he and Jacques Monod* were the ‘fathers’ of gene regulation, now a huge area in molecular biology.

Proteins include the enzymes that ‘digest’ our food, chemically breaking it down and modifying it. It was thought that control of enzymes was largely controlled directly by these proteins themselves. Jacob and Monod showed that some proteins control the genes that coded for proteins, thus controlling the production of the enzyme by the cell. (These can also control the level of the gene regulatory proteins themselves.)

cover-The-Statue-Within-250pxIt’s one of the those things that might seem obvious in hindsight, but it introduced what is a cornerstone of modern molecular biology, how genes are controlled.

Jacob and Monod’s original paper, Genetic Regulatory Mechanisms in the Synthesis of Proteins, is available on-line at several sources (PDF file, from Pasteur Institute). Readers might also like an open-access 50th anniversary review of this work and what it lead to.

He is also the author of a number of books, including his autobiography The Statue Within, which I have a copy on my shelves and read a number of years ago, and Of Flies, Mice, and Men, which I haven’t read. I can recommend his autobiography.

Like most students I was taught their work as an undergraduate. Today experimental studies might approach gene regulation fairly directly. Their work by contrast is, like most early molecular biology, quite interpretative working indirectly from growth rates of cells in culture or the like.

Astute readers will note that the original paper(s) proposes a mechanism for the regulation of the production of proteins from genes before the genetic code that underlies the production of a protein from a gene was known as related in the first paragraph of the introduction of the paper I’ve linked earlier:

According to its most widely accepted modern connotation, the word “gene” designates a DNA molecules whose specific self-replicating structure can, through mechanisms unknown, become translated into the specific structure of a polypeptide chain. [i.e. a protein; my emphasis added]

I did once hear François Jacob speak, when I was a Ph.D. student at Cambridge University. I have to confess I was sorely disappointed. I arrived later than I ought to have: being hard-of-hearing I need to sit near the front to follow most lectures. It was a large auditorium with seats raked at an angle. François read from notes at the lectern, barely looking up. My seating further back, his looking down** and my poor hearing meant I never heard a word from my near-namesake. I resolved to sit it out patiently (I couldn’t very well leave early from where I was seated without attracting attention).

Science writer Carl Zimmer has an excellent tribute piece up on National Geographic’s Phenomena website.


I’ve worked in the gene regulation area too. In fact, my current contract is looking at gene regulation. Besides the seemingly perennial question of just how genes are regulated—well, at least perennial since Jacob and Monod’s work—I’m fascinated with the structural biology aspects such as the higher-order structure of genomes, how genomes are organised within the nucleus and the work determining the structures and properties of the molecular complexes involved. A little world within the nucleus to explore. All things I ought to write about on this blog. (If could find time…)

* Monod died in 1976.

** Lip-reading can help (but not always).

(Updated to fix a little awkward wording.)

Other articles on Code for life:

Coiling bacterial DNA

Epigenetics and 3-D gene structure

Deleting a gene can turn an ovary into a testis in adult mammals

Temperature-induced hearing loss

Animating our DNA*