Sonneborn attend the Baltimore City Public Schools and graduated from the Baltimore City College (high school) in 1922
In the late 1950s he conducted an elegant series of experiments in his endeavours to discover what it is that mediates the synchronised movement of the paramecium's cilia. These minuscule hair-like projections enable the cell to 'swim'. They move together and paddle the cell through the water in which it lives.
The paramecium is a single-cell organism, so has nothing remotely resembling a brain. Yet its cilia move together like dancers in a ballet. How is it that their movements are co-ordinated?
Sonneborn surgically removed a small section of cell wall and replaced it rotated by 180 degrees. The cilia in the replaced section continued to 'wave' in the same direction as they had before surgery, i.e. now in antiphase to the others. What was remarkable is that both daughters of paramecia on which this operation had been performed also showed the same trait of a reverse phase wave in a similar area of their cell wall, as did, to a lesser extent, the granddaughter cells.
It is a mark of his excellence as a scientist that he should have taken the trouble to follow the fate of subsequent generations and so be able to make this observation. It may seem surprising that the clear evidence for non-Mendelian inheritance should have been largely overlooked by the scientific community. Further research was at that time limited because the available staining techniques to allow electron microscopy denatured the microtubules which 'power' the cilia so their presence in cells could not be seen. It may also be that, as at that time the mechanisms of genetic inheritance in DNA were becoming open to investigation, this example of non-Mendelian inheritance was not of great interest to the scientific community.
Sonneborn as teacher
Sonneborn is remembered by his students for an amusing lecture, illustrated with chalkboard drawings, that he gave each year before Christmas break in which he described evolution in terms of a journey from Indianapolis to Bloomington.
- Beale, G. H. (1982). "Tracy Morton Sonneborn. 19 October 1905-26 January 1981". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 28: 537–526. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1982.0021. JSTOR 769910.
- Preer, J. R. Jr. Tracy Morton Sonneborn, National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoirs
- Nanney, D. L. (1982). "Tracy M. Sonneborn (1905-1981)". Genetics 102 (1): 1–7. PMID 6751933.
- Nanney, D. L. (1981). "T.M. Sonneborn: An Interpretation". Annual Review of Genetics 15: 1–9. doi:10.1146/annurev.ge.15.120181.000245. PMID 6802065.
- Aufderheide, K. J. (1986). "Identification of the basal bodies and kinetodesmal fibers in living cells of Paramecium tetraurelia Sonneborn, 1975 and Paramecium sonneborni Aufderheide, Daggett & Nerad, 1983". The Journal of protozoology 33 (1): 77–80. PMID 3959010.
- .Leonhart, James Chancellor (1939). One Hundred Years Of Baltimore City College. Baltimore: H.G. Roebuck & Son. p. 282.
- Sonneborn Manuscripts at the Lilly Library Manuscript Collections
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