Connections: From Mima/Herellea to Acinetobacter to the Double Helix to Lwoff to … CRAB

There once was a Scientific American section authored by science historian James Burke called ‘Connections”. In it James Burke, a true renaissance man, showed us how an ‘internet’ of serendipitous encounters, connections between persons, places and events led to advances in science. His delightful tours through history are testimony to the fact that research rarely follows a straight path, and that circumstances can produce discoveries for the prepared mind.

Acinetobacter is in the news, esp. the MDR variety aka CRAB which stands for carbapenem-resistant A. baumannii. Reading about the depressingly short list of drugs with any kind of efficacy against this ever more important hospital pathogen, we will have to learn more about Acinetobacters, which encompass not just the A. baumannii, A. calcoaceticus and the unpronounceable A. lwoffi variety but some 20+ more species[1].

It was Paul Baumann, a microbiologist working on his dissertation, who took on the task of cataloguing the Mima/Herellea/Acinetobacter group of coccobacilli[2]. In painstaking work he characterized over 100 isolates based primarily on biochemical features. These were the days before the widespread use of DNA and 16S rRNA typing; nonetheless his techniques were sufficiently precise to bring order to chaos. It was Baumann who suggested putting all oxidase-negative Moraxellae into the Acinetobacter species group. Interestingly, he also used DNA homology data for confirmation. Reading Baumann’s article today, we get a glimpse of the incredible naming confusion that this taxonomist had to deal with.

Andre Lwoff was a bacteriologist who had already published several articles on Moraxella lwoffii in the 1940s. As a result of Baumann’s work, M. lwoffii was renamed to A. lwoffii. Andre Lwoff later received the Nobel prize in 1965 for his work on lysogeny and bacteriophages. Incidentally, Jacob worked in his lab and also received a Nobel prize that same year.

Jacob, Monod and Feynman were honored together with Lwoff in 1965 – what an incredible ensemble of geniuses!

We all know of, or have read, “The Double Helix”, James Watson’s account of the discovery of the structure of DNA. It is a classic. No need to dwell on the book’s merits and controversies here; this unorthodox report of scientific competition, brilliant deduction, unlikely collaborations and serendipitous encounters and exchanges between researchers from the US and England is a good read even today.

In the 1950s, top-notch researchers working on the structure of DNA seem to have known each other quite well –  and followed each others’ every move. But it may be less known that Lwoff wrote a most fascinating review of “The Double Helix”, analyzing the personalities and the dynamics of the research effort, retelling the story from his vantage point, and providing a psychoanalytical profile of the protagonist and writer, Nobel laureate James Watson himself.

Lwoff’s article is so much more than just a book review; it is a very personal account and deep reflection on the personalities involved, about human nature, about the uneven gifts of the most gifted, about the human mind, in which supreme intellectual powers may be found paired with subpar emotional intelligence and eccentricities of Freudian proportions. The expression “Verlust der personalen Mitte” comes to mind, a term denoting a loss of balanced psychological functioning along the axes of affect and intellect. It should not come as a surprise that Andre Lwoff was an altogether different kind of person: a humanist and socially-minded individual, a social activist, an artist, while being a first-rate researcher as well.

Not surprisingly perhaps, Lwoff’s review of “The Double Helix” was published in the Scientific American[3] which gave us James Burke and his “Connections”. Burke would have introduced us to even more connections involving the Acinetobacter and other CRAB, but we will have to leave it at that.

Also, we cannot forget the contribution of another microbiologist who worked on the taxonomy of the Mima / Herellea / Moraxella / Acinetobacter group of pathogens:  our teacher H.P.R. Seeliger, a salmonella / listeria researcher after whom L. seeligeri was named and who was mentioned in these blog pages before. Paul Baumann acknowledged Seeliger’s contributions to the field, suggesting that A. calcoaceticus might be named Lingelsheimia calco-acetica (Beijerinck) Seeliger 1.

Maybe we should have introduced Beijerinck, d’Herelle and von Lingelsheim here as well but – let’s leave it at that for now.

[1] M Phillips.  Chapter 224. Acinetobacter. In: Mandell (ed). Principles and Practice of Infectious Disease. Elsevier, 8th ed. 2014
[2] P Baumann.  A Study of the Moraxella Group.  II. Oxidative-negative Species (Genus Acinetobacter). J Bacteriol. 1968; 95:1520
[3] A Lwoff.  Books: Truth, truth, what is truth (about how the structure of DNA was discovered)? Sci Am 1968; July, p133ff

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