Edward J. Steele

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Edward (Ted) J. Steele is an Australian molecular immunologist formerly with the University of Wollongong, now listed as a visiting fellow at Murdoch University. Steele's research has led a resurgent interest in the French scientist Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck, the man who developed the first theory of evolution, pre-dating Charles Darwin by fifty years. Steele was also the subject of a dispute with the University of Wollongong, which led to his widely publicized dismissal, court-ordered reinstatement and subsequent undisclosed financial settlement by the university.

Scientific interests[edit]

Ted Steele developed the theory of reverse transcription from the somatic (body) cells to the germline (reproductive cells). This reverse transcription process enables characteristics or bodily changes acquired during a lifetime to be written back into the DNA and passed on to subsequent generations. This is what used to be known as neo-Lamarckism.[1] Steele's hypothesis provided the first mechanism to explain Lamarckian evolution: when successful somatic (body) cell changes occur due to environmental changes, copies of the copious new messenger-RNA that have been produced by the successful cells are picked up by harmless retroviruses acting as gene shuttles and transported across the tissue barrier – the Weismann Barrier – to the germline. Finally, the new genetic information is integrated into the DNA by a process involving reverse transcription. This process of writing or translating new information into the DNA provides the essential precursor to acquired changes being passed on to progeny; to the next generation, thereby demonstrating Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characters. Darwinian natural selection then goes to work on the progeny and subsequent generations: those fit for survival do so and those not fit die out. This recombination of Darwin and Lamarck by Steele has been described as meta-Lamarckism.[2]

During the 1980s and 1990s Ted Steele clashed with the scientific establishment, particularly in the UK, over this hypothesis and his support for Lamarck's place in modern science. Steele has stated publicly in an interview with the ABC program Lateline that his controversial theories have had a strong impact on his career "To be branded a heretic and a pariah meant that my career to keep doing research in this area were extremely limited."[3]

His book, Lamarck's Signature was variously praised and criticized by the scientific mainstream.[4]

Dismissal and dispute[edit]

In January 2001, Steele made several allegations to the media in regard to 'soft' marking resulting in the upgrading of full fee paying international students. Steele was summarily dismissed by UoW's Vice-Chancellor Gerard Sutton, stating that the university's reputation was "placed at a serious and imminent risk as a result of Associate Professor Steele's claims." Steele declared his dismissal unfair and instituted legal proceedings.The case received wide media coverage[5] In August 2001, the Australian Federal Court found that the University of Wollongong had breached its staff enterprise agreement and did not following correct conduct and dismissal procedures in Steele's case. Following the verdict Steele expressed publicly that he wanted his job back.[6]

On 5 April 2002, UoW Vice Chancellor Gerard Sutton acceded to NTEU demands and reinstated Dr Ted Steele to his position within the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Wollongong. It was made public that Steele's reinstatement was unconditional and involved backpay. President of the National Tertiary Education Union, Dr Carolyn Allport announced the importance of the victory and precedent that the court's ruling set. "The NTEU has said all along that Dr Steele was dismissed illegally. The union's position has been completely vindicated by the findings of four judges of the Federal Court and Dr Steele's subsequent reinstatement. The reinstatement comes after a 15 month legal and political campaign by the NTEU. It is a victory for all NTEU members because it clearly demonstrates that university staff cannot be dismissed without a proper and fair hearing. This requirement is the fundamental protection of intellectual freedom in Australia's universities and the successful campaign to reinstate Dr Steele has reaffirmed that protection for all Australian university staff and for the community that our universities serve."[7]

The University of Wollongong subsequently appealed against the court's decision, but again lost and was ordered to pay Steele's court costs (estimated to be approx. A$40,000). The University set out with further investigations into the allegations of soft marking in an effort to legitimately incriminate Steele, however there appeared to be a conflict of interest with Steele's former line manager being promoted to Dean, and chair of a subsequent enquiry. This led to Steele describing the UoW arbitration system as a 'Kangaroo court'.[8]

The unfair dismissal issue was resolved on 6 July 2002 when Steele and the University of Wollongong came to a confidential agreement. Although little is known in regard to the settlement, Steele did not return to the University of Wollongong.[9] Further reading.,[10][11]

Meta-Lamarckism and Research Legacy[edit]

Soma to germ-line feedback In the 1970s molecular immunologist Ted Steele and colleagues, proposed a neo-Lamarckian mechanism to try to explain why homologous DNA sequences from the VDJ gene regions of parent mice were found in their germ cells and seemed to persist in the offspring for a few generations. The mechanism involved the somatic selection and clonal amplification of newly acquired antibody gene sequences that were generated via somatic hyper-mutation in B-cells. The mRNA products of these somatically novel genes were captured by retroviruses endogenous to the B-cells and were then transported through the blood stream where they could breach the soma-germ barrier and retrofect (reverse transcribe) the newly acquired genes into the cells of the germ line. Although Steele was advocating this theory for the better part of two decades, little more than indirect evidence was ever acquired to support it. An interesting attribute of this idea is that it strongly resembles Darwin's own theory of pangenesis, except in the soma to germ line feedback theory, pangenes are replaced with realistic retroviruses.

In July 2006, Dr Corrado Spadafora published a paper providing evidence that male sex cells or sperm could indeed receive foreign genetic material - information from body cells being written back into the germline DNA. Spadafora presented evidence that a green fluorescent protein, a genetic tag attached to the sperm of a father subsequently showed up in the tissue or body cells of his progeny. He announced that there is in all mature spermatozoa, an efficient machinery to receive information from external DNA molecules and that this behavior is widespread. It has been observed in sperm from more than 30 species, from sea urchins to honey bees to humans. In about a quarter of cases the foreign genes have appeared in the next generation.[12] Spadafora announced in his paper that the genetic transfer mechanism he had discovered involves the generation and 'non-Mendelian' spread of new genetic information beyond that supposedly locked up in the chromosomes.

Simultaneously, Patrick Fogarty was one of a number of scientists working with animals to develop new genetic transfer technologies for drug target discovery. In his experiments, transgenic animals that have ‘knock-in’ genes or ‘knockout’ genes are used to provide useful animal models for the development of gene therapies. In the process of conducting the early trials, scientists are finding that the genome of animals can integrate new genes, or have selected genes deleted, and that the progeny of new transgenic animals inherit the new genetic alterations.Fogarty, has developed two new delivery vectors that can be used to incorporate a new gene into the genome, or to replace a similar gene with a new one. In the laboratory he uses a mechanism to envelope foreign DNA which is then injected into the tails of mice. Each animal is directly injected with a mix containing the new gene and a vector designed to assist the integration of the new gene into the animal’s genetic makeup. In his experiments, Fogarty and his colleagues injected the vectors with the new DNA cargo into mice, and achieved effective gene transformations to create the transgenic effects they aimed for. He showed that over time, the new DNA became integrated into almost all somatic cells tested. There also appeared to be no side effects using this technique. What is most remarkable about this work, is that the progeny of the StealthGeneTM and the TGD transgenic animals were also transgenic. The new genetic material had not only entered the somatic cells. It had also altered the genome of the animals injected. Using only the male line, the new genetic information was inherited by twenty five to eighty percent of the progeny of the transgenic animals, depending on the test variables used. The new genome was stable for the four generations tested, and there appeared to be no strain or sex dependencies.[13]

Science philosopher Ross Honeywill highlighted Steele's work by proposing that in finding the mechanism for Lamarckian evolution Steele had simultaneously combined the best of Darwin and Lamarck. He proposed a modern, well-supported Lamarckian theory could be devised, consistent with well-documented parts of modern molecular genetics, able to be articulated with a surviving core of Darwinian natural selection: a kind of Meta-Lamarckism. "Steele identified RNA as the critical transcription vehicle because unlike DNA, it was the medium that was out there in contact with what was going on in the body. It was the obedient servant that knew the secret language, the secret handshake. What a breakthrough it was to discover from Lamarck via Steele that RNA could take vital changes back to the DNA for generational improvements. But imagine what it means if the RNA is capable of carrying its own information through generations; imagine the Meta-Lamarckian consequences and opportunities written all over these discoveries."[14]

Selected publications[edit]

  • Steele, E.J.- Somatic Selection and Adaptive Evolution: On the Inheritance of Acquired Characters. 2nd Edition. Revised with an author's Postscript, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1981.
  • Steele, E.J., Lindley, R.A. & Blanden, R.V. Lamarck's Signature: How retrogenes are changing Darwin's natural selection paradigm. Allen & Unwin, Frontiers of Science: Series Editor Paul Davies, Sydney, Australia, 1998. In the USA, published by Addison-Wesley-Longman under Perseus Book imprint, Reading, MT, 1998
  • Honeywill, Ross - Lamarck's Evolution: two centuries of genius and jealousy. Pier 9 (Murdoch Books), Sydney. 2008


Further reading[edit]

  • Eric Nisbet-Brown and Thomas G. Wegmann. (1981). Is Acquired Immunological Tolerance Genetically Transmissible?. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 78, No. 9. pp. 5826-5828.
  • Roger Lewin. (1981). Lamarck Will not Lie down. Science, New Series, Vol. 213, No. 4505. pp. 316-321.
  • Michael B. Moll. (1983). Somatic Selection and Adaptive Evolution by E. J. Steele. The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 45, No. 3. pp. 174-175.
  • G. Lawrence Vankin. (1981). Somatic Selection and Adaptive Evolution: On the Inheritance of Acquired Characters by E. J. Steele . Systematic Zoology , Vol. 30, No. 1. pp. 111-115.

See also[edit]