|In Feb. 1996, Ernest Everett Just was honored with a U.S. Black Heritage postage stamp.
As an organicist, Just was squarely in the company of other classical embryologists, who held similar views. What made Just different from his peers was his unflinching willingness to take on giants of biology in his quest— fueled by his conviction about the importance of the cell periphery— to defend the holistic integrity of the developing organism. For instance, at the 1935 American Society of Zoologists meeting in Princeton, N.J., he publicly challenged Nobel laureate Thomas Hunt Morgan for his gene-centered view of development. Morgan had proposed that genes arranged in linear arrays on chromosomes are both the units of inheritance and the controllers of the developmental process. In opposition, Just presented his own cytoplasm-centered “theory of genetic restriction” to explain how differentiation occurs during development. Although ultimately incorrect, Just’s explanation nonetheless contained some elements of truth. Indeed, today we are learning that differential gene expression is a multi-faceted process with epigenetic, as well as genetic, components.
An examination of the life and work of E. E. Just provides several insights relevant to us today. First, although Just experienced crushing inequalities due to his being black in early 20th-century America, he nonetheless made significant contributions to biology. These contributions still resonate today in several areas: fertilization research, the emerging field of ecological developmental biology, integrative systems biology, epigenetics (in the broad sense) and embryo research. Second, Just did not hesitate to challenge prominent biologists whom he felt were incorrect in their overtly nucleocentric or reductionistic view of the cell or organism. Thus, Just’s example provides support to all young scientists today whose work leads them to challenge the accepted paradigms. Third, Just emphasized the importance of preserving the integrity of the cell or organism under investigation in the laboratory. “The cell is never a tool,” he wrote. It is a living system and not a machine that can be used to “prove a theory” (7). As we biochemists and molecular biologists go about our work to understand the molecular structure and function of living systems, we would do well to heed Just’s words. The top-down view should always be kept in mind.
1. Manning, K. R. (1983) Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest Everett Just. Oxford University Press.
2. Gould, S. J. (1988) Thwarted Genius. in An Urchin in the Storm: Essays about Books and Ideas. W. W. Norton and Co., pp. 169–179.
3. Gould, S. J. (1985) Just in the Middle: A Solution to the Mechanist-Vitalist Controversy in The Flamingo’s Smile: Reflections in Natural History. W. W. Norton and Co., pp. 377–391.
4. Byrnes, W. M. (2009) Introduction to the Special Issue. Mol. Reprod. Dev. 76, 1.
5. Just, E. E. (1912) The Relation of the First Cleavage Plane to the Entrance Point of the Sperm. Biol. Bull. 22, 239–252.
6. Just, E. E. (1939) Basic Methods for Experiments on Eggs of Marine Animals. P. Blakiston’s Son and Co.
7. Just, E. E. (1939) The Biology of the Cell Surface. P. Blakiston’s Son and Co.
8. Just, E. E. (1931) Die Rolle des Kortikalen Cytoplasmas bei Vitalen Ersheinungen. Naturwiss. 19, 953–1001.
9. Gilbert, S. F., and Sarkar, S. (2000) Embracing Complexity: Organicism for the 21st Century. Dev. Dynam. 219, 1–9.
10. Byrnes, W. M., and Eckberg, W. R. (2006) Ernest Everett Just (1883-1941) – An Early Ecological Developmental Biologist. Dev. Biol. 296, 1–11.
11. Gilbert, S. F., and Epel, D. (2009) Ecological Developmental Biology: Integrating Epigenetics, Medicine, and Evolution. Sinauer Associates.
12. Byrnes, W. M. (2009) Ernest Everett Just, Johannes Holtfreter, and the Origin of Certain Concepts in Embryo Morphogenesis. Mol. Reprod. Dev. 76, 912–921.
W. Malcolm Byrnes (email@example.com) is an associate professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at Howard University College of Medicine.