Hastings, J. W. (2001). Fifty years of fun. Journal of Biological Rhythms. (Vol. 16, pp. 5–18). [PDF]
Woody Hastings, who passed away last week at the age of 87, ran his lab down the hall from where I worked as a graduate student. He was already retired by the time I began, but over the years I would occasionally pass him in the hallway, where he still kept an office with his name on the door. I had no idea who he was or what he had studied, but for some reason a few months ago, I decided to look him up online, to see what this friendly older man in a plaid lumberjack coat was all about. And I say to you now the same thing I said then: Holy Shit.
Dr. Hastings’ career was so outrageously inspiring and self-evidently meaningful that it’s hard to know where to start. For his entire career, he studied the coolest thing on earth: bioluminescence. That’s right, Dr. Hastings spent his life studying the things that the rest of us dreamt about last night: swimming through a glow-in-the-dark ocean, lying in a field of fireflies. The title of his memoir-pape is literally “Fifty Years of Fun.”
(Photo by Will Ho)
You might imagine that glow-in-the-dark bacteria is some sort of trippy side-show to Mainstream Molecular Biology, but in fact the Hastings Lab’s studies of bioluminescence led to a baffling number of fundamental biological breakthroughs. Most famously, the Hastings Lab was the first to describe quorum sensing (which they called “autoinduction”), the means by which bacteria communicate and interpret their population density. For bioluminescent bacteria, quorum sensing is important because the glow is only visible when bacteria are at present in large numbers, so these microbes need to be able to coordinate their glow-making gene expression based on population density. Thus, the Hastings’ lab gave the first evidence that gene expression could be directly regulated by signals sent by other bacteria. We now know that quorum sensing is widely used by bacteria, and is important for such medically-relevant phenomena as biofilm formation, virulence, and antibiotic resistance.
It is important to realize that Hastings was working at the same time (and place) that the molecular biology revolution was occurring, when many now-famous scientists were figuring out transcription, translation, the genetic code, and gene regulation. But those scientific giants were a real clique, and Hastings was not really on the inside. Jim Watson, who founded the department that Hastings’ worked in, wrote: ”Woody was liked by all…though I saw his science as having little potential to make lasting ripples.” Wally Gilbert, who also worked in the same building as Hastings, ”expressed disbelief or disinterest, or thought [the] findings had a trivial explanation.” Basically, if you weren’t studying E. coli or phage genetics, your work wasn’t seen as relevant. Of course, this arrogant attitude is fucking ridiculous, both then and now. Hastings’ career is proof that it is not true that “model organism” research is the only way to get down to the heart of things (though of COURSE, Sick Papes also worships E. coli and phage, don’t get me wrong - just saying that they are just as “weird” as any other organism.)
And there’s much more. Hastings’ work was also foundational for another entire field: circadian rhythms. He showed that bioluminescent dinoflagellates have an internal clock, and provided one of the first tractable systems for studying the biochemical basis of biological rhythm. And again, this work has proven to be fundamental across much of life, including humans.
Hastings also pioneered studies of many interesting bioluminescent organisms, including the now well-known symbiosis between bioluminescent bacteria and squid, where the squid use the glowing bacteria in their belly to optically match the down-pouring moonlight and thereby make themselves invisible to lurking predators beneath. Yet again, Hastings provided one of the first tractable experimental systems to help found an entire field that might seem at first glance to be a novel sideshow, but has since exploded into an NIH-funded, power-house of mega-important research on the microbiome. Glowing oceans, the rhythm of life, and symbiosis - that’s how you do it. And it is a testament to Hastings’ scientific brilliance that all of these studies of unusual organisms were so solid that they helped to spawn entire fields that are still going strong decades later.
As we pay tribute to Woody Hastings, I’ll leave you with a quote from “Fifty Years of Fun,” where Hastings’ gives a memorable metaphor for the sometimes unituitive process of evolution:
"[A] story of inanimate evolution, which I picked up at JPL, the Jet Propulsion Lab at Cal Tech… It concerns the origin of the track width of railroads in the U.S., which is exactly 4 feet, 8.5 inches. The first explanation is that English expatriates built the first railroads in the U.S., but where did the English standard come from? Obviously from wagons and carriages, for which the jigs and tools were readily available. And why were they built that width? Because with any other spacing the wagons would break up on some of the old long-distance roads, due to the existing wheel ruts. These can be traced to the Romans, who built and used these roads for their war chariots, designed to be just wide enough to accommodate two war horses, thus accounting for the width. As with living organisms, many present-day features were determined long ago.
JPL provides another twist to the story. Attached to the space shuttle there are two large booster rockets, made by a factory in Utah and shipped by train to the assembly site. The rockets were built as large as possible, but they had to pass through mountain tunnels, the sizes of which are related to track width. So a major design feature of the world’s most advanced transportation system was determined by the width of a horse’s ass.”