Geneticists as Auto Mechanics

A couple of years ago, one of the rear tail lights went out on my car. I’m kinda handy with tools, so I figured it would be an easy fix. I poked around in the trunk area with my screw driver, removing every screw within spitting distance of the lamp. I tugged on the lamp in every possible direction, but the sucker wouldn’t budge. Just because I could sequence DNA or parse a genome into the interesting bits and discard the boring stuff, didn’t mean I could perform simple maintenance on my car. I admitted defeat and had the lamp fixed the next time I brought my car in for an inspection.

Why did I tell you this? Partially because of this story on LabLit. In that story, Ian Brooks (who has, on more than one occasion, forced me to drink one more Guinness even though it was a Monday night and I needed to get up early the next morning) manages to fix his rear tail light even though he’s a trained molecular geneticist. Ian also manages to get in a few jabs at the automobile inspection standards in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Tennessee.

But the real reason I’m writing about auto repair and geneticists is because they’re the topic of a great description of what geneticists do. Bill Sullivan’s “The Salvation of Doug” is the story of a biochemist and geneticist who try to figure out how cars work. The geneticist performs elegant experiments (creating “mutations”) while the biochemist toils away at grinding things up and mixing things together.

For the sake of fairness, I will point out that Douglas Kellogg (the Doug from Sullivan’s story) has written the biochemist’s version of the tale: “The Demise of Bill“. The Bill in question is obviously Dr. Sullivan.


  1. #1 Jonathan Badger
    November 29, 2006

    I thought this was going to be about the old joke/analogy about the differences between geneticists and biochemists in relation to automobiles:

    The biochemists get a bunch of cars and grind them up and analyze the results, saying “we understand cars: they are 50% steel, 25% plastic, 10% glass, and 15% rubber”.

    The geneticists go to the car factory and abduct a worker at gunpoint — they notice that the cars made that day don’t have headlights — so they name the guy “lightless”.

  2. #2 Jonathan Badger
    November 29, 2006

    D’oh! The “Doug” story you link to later on is obviously the source of the anecdote I was thinking of — Note to self — read past the first link.

  3. #3 Brooks Moses
    November 29, 2006

    Heh. I’m somewhat reminded of my recent experience (as a mechanical engineer) with light-bulb repair (story here). I’m sure there’s some field-appropriate joke about spending two hours to replace the wrong bulb.

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