Some time ago, I read James Gleick's "Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman", a wonderful biography of Feynman and, by extension, most of modern physics. In this book, the author mentions that Feynman spent a year working in a biology lab and that during that year he made an important discovery.

I remember that when reading the book as an undergraduate biology student, I knew the discovery in question well enough to be immensely impressed that it had been discovered by someone foreign to the field.

Unfortunately, I no longer have the book and cannot remember what that discovery was. Does anyone know?

  • $\begingroup$ Don't know the answer, but this has always made me lough a lot (and I deeply agree with Mr. Feynman) $\endgroup$
    – nico
    Aug 26, 2012 at 17:44
  • $\begingroup$ @nico Tell me about it, the time I spent memorizing the names of all the myosins... I actually had an exam question once, asking what year the Origin of Species was published in. Not what the book said mind you, they were asking for information you can get by looking at the inside cover. This in what, at the time, was the best rated University for Biology in the UK. $\endgroup$
    – terdon
    Aug 26, 2012 at 18:00

1 Answer 1


According to Gleick, Feynman spent the summer of 1960 in Delbrück's lab at Caltech and discovered intragenic supression.

This is where the expression of a gene which has been knocked out by a mutation may be restored by a second mutation within the same gene.

Fenynman worked with the rII mutant of phage T4 and was looking for back mutations in E.coli strain K.

He noted some unusual plaques which he labelled idiot r's.

Feynman correctly deduced that these revertants were due to a second mutation which cancelled the effect of the first, but he did not publish the result, possibly because he had no molecular explanation for what was going on.

The Delbrück lab referred to these revertants as Feyntrons.

Cricks and co-workers in Cambridge, UK, correctly explained the phenomenon. If, for example, a mutation caused a gene to be read out of sequence (a frameshift mutation) then a second mutation within the same gene could put the message back 'in phase', thus cancelling out the effect of the first mutation.

All the above is taken from James Gleick (1992) Genius. Richard Feynman and modern physics, a great book.

  • $\begingroup$ That's wonderful, thank you. I have been trying to remember this for years. Are you sure about the book's title though? I can find no reference to it. See my answer for the one I remember and can find. $\endgroup$
    – terdon
    Aug 27, 2012 at 10:46

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