"The Mystery of an Ancient Gene"


A Half-Hour Science Documentary

In the Series: FIELD NOTES, producers Larry Walsh and Denise Wallen

available to teachers by email request to Maggie WW.


"The Mystery of an Ancient Gene" chronicles the year-long search of University of New Mexico Biologist Margaret Werner-Washburne and her research team, as they struggle to unravel the secrets, and discover the function, of an ancient, highly important gene.

"The Mystery of an Ancient Gene," which was produced by the University of New Mexico and KNME-TV, and funded by the National Science Foundation, provides a unique glimpse of this revolution from the trenches. Its stunningly animated sequences show both the process of life within the cell and the techniques modern biologists use to understand and manipulate life on a molecular level within a living cell.

In addition to drama, "The Mystery of an Ancient Gene" provides a good introduction for the general public to the basic tools and scientific approaches that are fueling the revolution in microbiology and genetics. The animation sequences were developed for Los Alamos National Laboratory and are not only a must see for anyone interested in understanding biology today, but a must record for all science teachers and students. As a Mexican-American, Margaret Werner-Washburne is also an important role model.

"The Mystery of an Ancient Gene" is a detective story, albeit on a molecular level. It documents the search for the function of one gene which is active only during stationary phase, a gene appropriately called SNZ or "SNooZe." "The hook with SNZ is that it is so highly conserved. I mean that SNZ from yeast looks identical to that of bacteria and plants. So, by all ourscientific understanding, SNZ is a very old gene and should have a very interesting and important function," stated Werner-Washburne.

In November 1997, the research team finally discovered that SNZ plays a vital role in a cell's metabolic pathway. Yet, its exact relationship to stationary phase is still to be determined. But as Werner-Washburne points out, most answers in science lead to new questions and new mysteries.

"The Mystery of an Ancient Gene" is part of the continuing series FIELD NOTES, which presents cutting edge research at the University of New Mexico.