James A. Shapiro

James Alan Shapiro[4] (born May 18, 1943) is an American biologist, an expert in bacterial genetics and a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Chicago.[5]

James A. Shapiro
Alma materChurchill College, Cambridge University, England
Known forNatural genetic engineering, first isolation of a gene, cooperative behavior in bacteria, pattern formation
AwardsMarshall Scholarship (1964-1966),[1] Darwin Prize (University of Edinburgh) 1993,[2] AAAS Fellow 1994,[3] Honorary OBE 2001[2]
Scientific career
FieldsMicrobiology, Molecular Biology, Genetics, Biochemistry
InstitutionsUniversity of Chicago; Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institut Pasteur, France; Harvard Medical School; Brandeis University; Visiting Professor at Tel Aviv University and the University of Edinburgh, Scotland; Visiting Fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge University, England

Academic biographyEdit

Shapiro obtained his Bachelor's degree in English from Harvard College in 1964.[1][6] Then, inspired by a genetics course he had taken as a senior,[7] he shifted from English to science, earned a doctorate in genetics from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge in 1968, and did postdoctoral research with Jon Beckwith at the Harvard Medical School. He was troubled by the potential genetic engineering applications of his research.[7][8][9] He spent two years teaching genetics in Havana, Cuba, before returning to another postdoctorate with Harlyn Halvorson at Brandeis University.[6] Since 1973, he has worked as a professor of microbiology at the University of Chicago, and has also been a visiting professor from time to time, including once as a Darwin Prize Visiting Professor at the University of Edinburgh in 1994.[10]


While working with Beckwith at Harvard, Shapiro was part of the first team to isolate a single gene from an organism.[6][11][12] The gene they isolated was lacZ, which codes for the β-galactosidase enzyme used by E. coli bacteria to digest the sugars in milk. Their technique involved transduction of two complementary copies of the gene into two different bacteriophages, then mixing the genetic material from the two phages, and finally using a nuclease to degrade the single-stranded phage genome, leaving only the double-stranded DNA formed by the two copies.[13]

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 1979, Shapiro was the first to propose replicative transposition as a mechanism for gene mobility. In this model, genes such as retrotransposons are copied from one DNA sequence to another via a process in which the two sequences combine to form an intermediate "theta" shape, sometimes called a "Shapiro intermediate".[14]

Later, Shapiro showed that bacteria cooperate in communities that exhibit complex behavior such as hunting, building protective structures, and spreading spores, and in which individual bacteria may sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the larger community.[15][16][17] Based on this work, Shapiro believes that cooperative behavior is a fundamental organizing concept for biological activity at all levels of complexity.[18]

Shapiro has also studied pattern formation in bacteria, an area where he feels that there are new mathematical principles to be discovered that also underlie the growth of crystals and the shape of cosmological structures.[6] For instance, he found that the gut bacterium Proteus mirabilis forms complex terraced rings, an emergent property of simple rules that the bacterium uses to avoid neighboring cells.[19]

He has proposed the term natural genetic engineering to account for how novelty is created in the course of biological evolution. It has been criticized by some.[20][21][22][23]

Awards and honorsEdit

Shapiro was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in 1963[24] and was a Marshall Scholar from 1964 to 1966.[1] He won the Darwin Prize Visiting Professorship of the University of Edinburgh in 1993.[2] In 1994, he was elected as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for "innovative and creative interpretations of bacterial genetics and growth, especially the action of mobile genetic elements and the formation of bacterial colonies."[3][25] And in 2001, he was made an honorary officer of the Order of the British Empire for his service to the Marshall Scholarship program.[2] In 2014 he was chosen to give the 3rd annual "Nobel Prize Laureate - Robert G. Edwards" lecture [26]

Selected publicationsEdit

Shapiro edited the books Mobile Genetic Elements (Academic Press, 1983) and, with Martin Dworkin, Bacteria as Multicellular Organisms (Oxford University Press, 1997). He is the author of Evolution: A View from the 21st Century (FT Press Science, 2011, ISBN 978-0-13-278093-3). In 2014, with Raju Pookottil and Denis Noble, he launched The Third Way web site.


  1. ^ a b c "Marshalls Announced", Harvard Crimson, May 5, 1964
  2. ^ a b c d "Queen honors Shapiro with OBE", University of Chicago Chronicle, January 10, 2002
  3. ^ a b "AAAS Fellow listing".
  4. ^ "Full name".
  5. ^ "Faculty profile, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Chicago". Archived from the original on September 21, 2013. Retrieved September 20, 2013.
  6. ^ a b c d Kolata, Gina (October 13, 1992), "The Biologist Who Saw a Pattern", New York Times
  7. ^ a b Beckwith, Jonathan R. (2002), Making genes, making waves: a social activist in science, Harvard University Press, ISBN 978-0-674-00928-8
  8. ^ Kolata, Gina (March 5, 1996), "Elusive Genetic Switch At Last Yields Image Of Its 3-D Structure", New York Times
  9. ^ Knox, Richard (January 20, 1970), "Harvard Geneticist Turns to Social Ills", Boston Globe
  10. ^ "Curriculum Vitae, James A. Shapiro". University of Chicago.
  11. ^ "Scientists Isolate a Gene; Step in Heredity Control", New York Times, November 23, 1969
  12. ^ "Playing With Biological Fire", New York Times, December 8, 1969
  13. ^ Müller-Hill, Benno (1996), The lac Operon: a short history of a genetic paradigm, Walter de Gruyter, p. 42, ISBN 978-3-11-014830-5
  14. ^ Bushman, Frederic (2002), Lateral DNA transfer: mechanisms and consequences, CSHL Press, p. 46, ISBN 978-0-87969-621-4
  15. ^ Browne, Malcolm W. (July 5, 1988), "Some Thoughts on Self Sacrifice", New York Times
  16. ^ Kolata, Gina (October 13, 1992), "Bacteria Are Found to Thrive on a Rich Social Life", New York Times
  17. ^ Guy, Sandra (December 15, 2004), "Scientist uncovers secret lives of bacteria", Chicago Sun-Times
  18. ^ Browne, Malcolm W. (April 14, 1992), "Biologists Tally Generosity's Rewards", New York Times
  19. ^ "Making the complex simple", The Economist, January 25, 2001
  20. ^ Bezak, Eva (2011). "(Review) Evolution: A View from the 21st Century". Australasian Physical & Engineering Science in Medicine 34 (4): 643–645.
  21. ^ Buratti, Emanuele (2012). "Evolutionary Lessons for 21st Century Molecular Biotechnologists". Molecular Biotechnology 52 (1): 89–90.
  22. ^ Moran, Laurence A (May–June 2011). "(Review) Evolution: A View from the 21st Century". Reports of the National Center for Science Education 32.3 (9): 1–4.
  23. ^ Seoighe, Cathal (2012). "(Review) Evolution: A View from the 21st Century". Trends in Evolutionary Biology 4 (e6): 32–33.
  24. ^ "16 Elected Phi Beta Kappa At Harvard", Boston Globe, December 8, 1963
  25. ^ "Four faculty members elected AAAS Fellows", University of Chicago Chronicle, 14 (10), January 19, 1995
  26. ^ World Congress on Controversies in Obstetrics, Gynecology & Infertility (COGI)

External linksEdit