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No. 72: Nov-Dec 1990

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Hypermutation rather than directed mutation?

The year 1988 saw a flurry of excitement over the purported discovery of "directed mutation" in the laboratory; that is, mutations of organisms that seemed goal-directed rather than random and independent of environmental pressures. The concept of directed mutation is counter to prevailing biological dogma, and, naturally, this research bore severe scrutiny. Objections and arguments against directed mutation arose, but the original research was never shown to be faulty.

New experiments along this line, by B. Hall at the University of Rochester, have supported the original Harvard work and refuted some of the objections that had been leveled. Working with a special strain of Escherichia coli, Hall starved the bacteria of a certain amino acid, (tryptophan) that they usually got from the environment and could not synthesize. In the days that followed, many of the bacteria mutated so that they could synthesize their own tryptophan. Hall concluded: "Mutations that occur more when they're useful than when they're not: That I can document any day, every day, in the laboratory."

Rather than assign any "conscious" goal-seeking attributes to the bacteria, Hall prefers to think that the environmental stress induced a state of "hypermutation." In this state all sorts of mu-tations occurred in abundance. Only those that synthesized tryptophan survived the starvation program; even potentially favorable mutations died quickly. (Stolzenburg, W.; "Hypermutation: Evolutionary Fast Track," Science News, 137:391, 1990.)

Comment. Besides the implication that environmental stresses have initiated the mutations that gave us today's fauna and flora, we see that the idea of hypermutation is merely an acceleration of standard evolutionary processes. But how do environmental stresses turn on the biological switch that starts the mutation machine going? What sort of environmental stresses would cause humans to mutate? What would we turn into if, say, global temperatures rose 5?

From Science Frontiers #72, NOV-DEC 1990. 1990-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:


  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987