François Jacob has died

Jacob and Jacques Monod, who won the Nobel Prize in 1965 for their work on the lac operon, were the fellows who really put gene regulation on the map, working out the mechanisms behind switching genes off and on in response to environmental cues. I always talk about their work on day one of my developmental biology courses; everything else in molecular genetics and development are built on the foundation they laid down.

And now Le prix Nobel et résistant François Jacob est mort (Monod died in 1976).

By the way, in addition to being a great scientist, Jacob was also a great atheist. This is a loss to all of us.

Carl Zimmer has written a lovely tribute to Jacob’s work.


  1. raven says

    Brilliant work.

    I learned about them as a sophomore and just about every year after that.

    Enough that I still remember a lot of it.

    I wonder if they ever figured out what the third gene of the lac operon was for? The lactose transaceytlase which converts lactose to allolactose?

  2. terminus says

    Spent all of Thursday and Friday teaching/discussing the lac and tryp operons to my AP bio classes. About 1/3 of my 18 students were intrigued, raised thoughtful questions, and recognized the evolutionary significance of their research. The rest of my students appeared bored and resentful that we were “wasting” time on bacterial gene expression (they only seem interested in “awesome” human biology) . Needless to say, these 12 students are either young-earthers or dyed-in-the-wool creationists. To them, nothing speaks to evolution. Wish I had known Jacob was an atheist…would have snuck that little tid-bit into the presentation.

  3. raven says

    The rest of my students appeared bored and resentful that we were “wasting” time on bacterial gene expression (they only seem interested in “awesome” human biology)

    That is a valid question. I’ve heard it too.

    The basic principles of gene regulation discovered by Jacob and Monod are exactly the same in all organisms, in broad outline.

    Cis acting DNA regulatory sequences i.e. operators and such things as enhancers in eukaryotes.

    Trans acting regulatory proteins that bind to the cis regions and turn them off or turn them on, i.e the lac repressor.

    It was first discovered in bacteria because they are a simpler and far more amenable system.

    PS That awesome human biology includes bacteria and bacterial gene expression. The mitochondria are basically highly derived symbiotic bacteria and retain many bacterial characteristics such as bacterial type ribosomes.

    You won’t get through to the hardcore creationists by pointing out we are part of a symbiosis, but you will make them turn up their cognitive dissonance generator to “9”.

    PSS What is so awesome about human biology anyway. It’s basically the same as a cat or mouse and not much different from a goldfish.

  4. raven says

    xian troll:

    was being the operative word. Wonder if he has now changed his mind?

    Too bad hell doesn’t exist. You would finally be at home.

    BTW, Ross Nixon, you life is over with. You are now the walking dead. You blew it.

    Brahma hates Pascal’s wager. Which is what you just slimed out.

    You will be sent back in your next reincarnation as a tape worm or flea. It will take you at least a million years worth of lives to even be reincarnated as a vertebrate, a cow if you are lucky, a chicken if not.

    But Brahma always gives people multiple chances. So just try to be the best tape worm you can and hope you don’t blow it again and reincarnate as a weed.

  5. Stacy says

    was being the operative word. Wonder if he has now changed his mind?

    His brain being dead, his mind no longer exists. Got any more foolish ponderings?

  6. raven says

    Got any more foolish ponderings?


    Of course he does.

    Ross Nixon has an imaginary friend in the sky. He will tell you all about it.

  7. yubal says

    François went back to the void that holds no spirit and donated his atoms back to the pool they originally came from.

    None of my work could have been accomplished without his discoveries.

    I never got to know him, but will always remember him and his fantastic work.

  8. Francisco Bacopa says

    I can’t believe that anyone would be bored by Jacob and Monod’s work. Sure, everybody in their time knew that DNA coded for proteins but the catch was that no one had any idea how a cell “knew” how to use the info in its DNA to make the right proteins at the right times. Biology doesn’t get more awesome than that.

  9. ChasCPeterson says

    I’m old enough that when I was being educated in basic biology, the lac operon was still the only example of gene regulation understood well enough to be taught. Lots of folks standing on these dead shoulders.

  10. garlic says

    Also, both Monod and Jacob wrote remarkable books for the educated public.

    Monod’s “Chance and Necessity” should be to gene regulation what the Selfish Gene is to evolution. It explains the workings of proteins with DNA and with each other, and puts them into the general context of a theory of what is a living being.

    Note that there are entire chapters devoted to countering both religious nonsense, and the then-current idiocy of Marxist anti-science. While the specifics are dated, the general idea is still highly relevant.

    Jacob introduced brilliant metaphors, such as evolution as “jury-rigging” (bricolage), and the “dream” of a cell – becoming two cells.

    If you want to introduce students to the actual working of gene regulation “in context”, these are highly recommended.

  11. David Marjanović says

    Wow. Ross Nixon was here… I thought he had dropped off the edge of the Internet years ago. How telling that he resurfaced precisely on this post.

    “jury-rigging” (bricolage)

    It just means “tinkering” as opposed to professional construction.