Johannes Wirz: Brief Background and Publications
Stephen L. Talbott
Johannes Wirz, a Nature Institute adjunct researcher, is a molecular biologist on the staff of the Research Laboratory at the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland. He edits the journal, Elemente der Naturwissenschaft, and several years ago joined colleagues around Europe to found Ifgene, a scholarly network exploring the presuppositions, consequences, and moral implications of genetic engineering. (You will find information about Ifgene here.) His current research projects include a qualitative assessment of genetically modified potatoes; a study of butterflies with a view toward the land management policies necessary for their preservation; and an effort to develop criteria for beekeeping that do not include chemical attacks against the varroa mite, which is proving so devastating to honey bees worldwide.
Johannes recalls two “silly” thoughts that redirected his interests while he was working toward his Ph.D. in molecular biology at the University of Basel. In the laboratory of Walter Gehring he “discovered” that fruit flies anesthetized for observation under a compound microscope do not exhibit their most important traits, namely, behavior, movement, and flight. He began to wonder what the tiny flies did in their natural habitat, and how this might be described.
His second thought arose from work on the embryonic development of these same fruit flies. The embryos employed for laboratory analysis were believed to show their essential properties at minus 70 degrees C — yet no one would use material from such frozen flies for genetic modification. Only living and maximally healthy flies were used for modification experiments. Why is this so, he asked himself, since according to theory the deep-frozen embryos were like live ones in every regard, except for the fact that they were dead?
These ruminations led him to focus on two questions: What is life, and how can the “true” habitat of an animal properly be described?
Johannes has co-edited two books on genetics and genetic engineering:
Genetic Engineering and the Intrinsic Value and Integrity of Animals and Plants. Proceedings of a Workshop at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, UK 18-21 September 2002. Edited by David Heaf & Johannes Wirz (Ifgene, 2002)
The Future of DNA. Edited by Johannes Wirz and Edith Lammerts von Bueren (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997)
Articles in English:
Networks, Not Building Blocks: the Idea of the Organism in Genetics and Epigenetics
From Archetype vol. 14, November 2008. Reprinted by permission.
Unintended Phenotypic Effects of Single Gene Insertions in Potatoes: Assessing Developmental Dynamics and Leaf Morphology
by Ruth Richter, Jos van Damme and Johannes Wirz