Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 2005

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Of Mice and Man

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Of Mice and Man

Of Mice and Man
Marc Zimmer is the Barbara Zaccheo Kohn ´72 Professor of Chemistry. Photo by Bruce Johnson

Glowing genes reveal a lot about us, as Barbara Zaccheo Kohn ´72 Professor of Chemistry Marc Zimmer has found out, thanks to a couple of mice.

by Stan DeCoster


Six-year-old Caitlin Zimmer wept. The entire family mourned. They placed the body in a container and, on a gloomy day in late March, buried it in the hilltop backyard of their Groton home, with a panoramic view of the Thames River and, in the distance, the Connecticut College campus.

The death of Glowy Glimmer Zimmer, also known as Glowy Nibbles Zimmer, didn’t require a casket. A simple tea tin sufficed because, you see, Glowy was a mouse — although certainly not your run-of-the-mill rodent. She was without hair and iridescent, glowing neon green in the dark.

Glowy doubled as the family pet and a symbol of work conducted by Marc Zimmer, a professor of chemistry at Connecticut College, and researchers elsewhere. His popular science book, Glowing Genes: A Revolution in Biotechnology, explains a field that promises to fight cancer and other diseases, enhance agricultural production and even combat terrorism. But the research has received scant public attention, and Zimmer, with his book, is intent upon changing that. Zimmer is soft-spoken but passionate when discussing the potential of work being done in a field of science that is called bioluminescence.

“The best analogy I can think of is the microscope,” he says. “The microscope allows us to see things that aren’t visible to the naked eye. And this is the microscope of the 21st century. It allows us to see things no one has ever seen before.”

The glowing material is akin to what makes fireflies brighten the sky on a hot summer night. It also is how one species of jellyfish has added light to the oceans for millions of years. So, when some of this jellyfish material (known as green flourescent protein, or GFP) is infused into animals — such as Glowy — they literally glow in the dark when placed under ultraviolet light. Simply stated, scientists have isolated the gene that creates the glow, removed it from jellyfish, and then replicated it. They have cloned it.

Potentially, one day GFP will be used to detect and trace the spread of cancer cells and bacterial infections, among other things, in humans. Ethical questions exist, as might be expected in any discussion of cloning, but to date the public seems oblivious to it all. “I would welcome a public debate,” says Zimmer, who has taught at CC since 1990. “There are issues to be considered. But it hasn’t started yet.”

Coming of age
in South Africa

Glowy is gone, but there are two new mice from AntiCancer Inc. — both of the glowing variety — in the Zimmer household. Caitlin, who is now seven, and her 11-year-old brother, Matthew, are now watching over Shine and Shimmer.

On a late April day, the sun was still high in the sky when the children carried their pets to a hallway that turned pitch-black when connecting doors were shut. The mice scampered about on the carpet as, above them, Marc Zimmer hovered with a black light. They shimmered and shined a bright green.

Zimmer smiles as his children get down on all fours with Shine and Shimmer. He is an adoring father. He is tall and thin, and walks with a slight slouch. He has longish, floppy hair reminiscent of the early Beatles of the 1960s. The 43-year-old professor speaks with a native South African accent, as does Dianne, his wife of 19 years. He has an easy smile, and his students consider him laid-back and approachable.

Zimmer was born July 26, 1961 in racist South Africa where apartheid ruled until 1990, the year Nelson Mandela was released from prison. His parents were liberal and didn’t buy into the government-mandated policy of white supremacy. Marc Zimmer, an only child, reflected his parents’ values. He was raised in a middle-class household in Sasolburg, an isolated coal-mining community. His father was a chemical engineer, and his mother a housewife. The town of about 15,000 whites (the black population wasn’t counted then) was so off the beaten path that it didn’t have a restaurant or movie theater.

During his youth, Zimmer and his friends played, mostly barefoot in the wild, and he displayed characteristics that later in life would benefit him as a scientist and teacher. He was curious about the world about him; he was a risk-taker, and he was a free spirit — to the point of being rebellious. These were dangerous personality traits in fascist South Africa. There, students were caned — struck across the backside with a bamboo stick — for even minor transgressions. Zimmer very well may hold the record for the Sasolburg schools. In just one term, a quarter of the school year, teachers caned him 104 times.

“It could be for your hair being too long, talking during prayers, or not standing straight enough during the national anthem,” he says. “I got mostly bruises, but a few times they actually drew some blood.”

Racism was all around him. Blacks lived in outlying areas. Black men were allowed into the white community only to work, and women spent much of their time separated from their husbands as maids, living in separate quarters in the homes of their white bosses. “One of the first things I remember is the police raids,” Zimmer says. “They would march into the rooms occupied by the women to make sure no men were present. It was part of the government enforcement to make sure there was no mixing of the races.”

Zimmer’s career goal was to be a game warden, presumably watching over herds of elephants, zebras and giraffes. That plan was quickly dashed, however, when he flunked an introductory botany course. He immediately turned his attention to molecules and became enthralled with chemistry. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. Later, he earned his Ph.D. at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts and did post-doctorate work at Yale University.

He met his future wife, Dianne, while attending Witwatersrand. For Dianne, dating Marc was culture-shock.

“I grew up in the city, in a very straight-laced society,” she says now, sitting in the living room of their home. “And here comes this guy who’s like nobody I’d ever met before. He was rebellious, sort of a ‘bad boy.’ But I loved it. He opened a whole new life to me.”

She recalls the time they climbed South Africa’s highest mountain, and she asked what he had brought for food. Easter eggs, he had replied, just chocolate Easter eggs. She laughs remembering the moment.

Then there was the day they went into the black township of Soweto, outside of Johannesburg, to attend a concert. The government prohibited whites traveling into black areas, and violators were subject to arrest. Marc and Dianne drove past a sign, “NO WHITES BEYOND THIS POINT.” Marc Zimmer recalls a crowd of about 20,000 at the concert, and only 10 or so were white. Then potential disaster struck. Zimmer broke their car key while trying to pry open a soda can. So they were stuck in a forbidden area, and they couldn’t drive away. They couldn’t call police; the government would have them arrested. Police also would find them if they remained in the township for much longer. Fortunately, they befriended a man who happened to be a petty thief, and he cheerfully agreed to hot-wire their car. Thanks to his offer, Marc and Dianne drove safely away.

“What impressed me was Dianne,” Zimmer says. “She never panicked. She kept an even keel throughout it all.”

Zimmer decided to go to graduate school to avoid the South African military draft. If he were drafted, he would have been ordered to enforce the oppressive apartheid policies. Later, he came to WPI in Worcester. His purpose in coming to the United States was, again, to avoid the draft. He returned to his native country in 1986 to marry Dianne. South Africa’s racist leaders desperately were trying to maintain control then, amid protests, turmoil and international calls for reform.

“It was the height of apartheid,” he says now. “I could have been arrested as a draft dodger when I went back. Fortunately, things were so crazy then that nobody (in government) noticed I had returned.”

Lighting the way
in science

The firefly’s flame Is something for which science has no name
I can think of nothing eerier
Than flying around with an unidentified glow on a
person’s posteerier.

These lyrics, written by Ogden Nash in 1937, are among Zimmer’s favorites, and he includes them in his “Glowing Genes” book.

Zimmer came to Connecticut College in 1990, and planted his family’s roots in southeastern Connecticut. He specializes in computational chemistry, molecular science and environmental chemistry and immediately embraced the New London campus and the idea of teaching at a small liberal arts college.

He especially likes the easy interaction with students. He says they make him feel young. He also appreciates the way he is able to structure his professional life. The college encourages him to take risks and launch initiatives, as when he introduced an environmental chemistry major.

“If I had gone to Yale I would have spent 90 percent of my time doing research,” he says. “Here, I spent about 40 percent of my time doing research. So I have plenty of time to work with students and accomplish other things.”

Zimmer has accompanied students to South Africa as part of the College’s Study Away/Teach Away semester. He leads them on trips to national science meetings. And he and Dianne welcome students into their home for dinner.

“Everybody loves Marc Zimmer,” says Becky Reeves ’05, who graduated from Connecticut in May. “He makes it fun. He brings demonstrations to class. And he asks questions that keep you interested, like how many beers can a person have before passing out.”

Flavia Fideles ’03 worked in Zimmer’s computer lab for more than three years. She now is taking post-graduate courses at the University of Connecticut, and she looks back at her Connecticut experience, especially what she learned from Zimmer, with a sense of satisfaction.

“I want to teach and have a lab, just like he does,” she says. “So he’s an amazing role model for me. He’s very passionate about his work and his research, and he passes that along to his students. In that respect, he’s inspiring.”

Seeing the invisible

Zimmer first heard of GFP, the flourescent protein taken from jellyfish, in 1995, about a year after scientists had learned to clone it.

He instantly became curious. What promise did the discovery hold? What are its scientific applications? What are the ethical boundaries?

He decided that his skills as a computational science could play a role. And he was intrigued by what he calls the “science fiction aspect to it all” — it amazes him that scientists now can see something that always had been invisible, even under the probing lens of a microscope.

Zimmer tells his students that no one person is going to cure cancer. Rather, he sees scientific experimentation as being similar to piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. “If a puzzle has 2,000 pieces,” he says, “it’s important to create one crucial piece to it.” In the research of bioluminescence, Zimmer already has added several important pieces to the calculation that can be used as building blocks by other researchers.

And Zimmer, in addition to making contributions inside his computer laboratory, sees his role as letting the public share what scientists already know: that bioluminescence holds great promise for both current and future generations.

The front jacket of his book shows two pigs, one of them your typical barnyard animal, and a second one that — thanks to GFP — has a yellow snout and yellow hooves that glow in the dark. The book also discusses how the glowing gene has been introduced into zebra fish, a rabbit and a monkey. Glowing zebra fish have become a marketable item, a trendy addition to aquariums in people’s homes. Alba, the flourescent rabbit, has been used in what is described as “transgenic art.”

Zimmer discusses GFP’s applications, from the silly to the very serious. On the serious side, GFP holds promise of being a substance that tracks the spread of, say, cancer cells and bacterial infections. It may soon be possible for agricultural crops to show dryness by glowing. In the fight against terrorism, genes have been created that glow in the presence of anthrax spores, chemical warfare agents and landmines. An added bonus of the new technology is that it allows for the tracing of cancer and other cells in a humane way; no longer must animal lives be sacrificed in laboratories to understand how diseases work.

The public must become involved in the discussion, according to Zimmer, so that ethical boundaries can be set as scientists go about their work.

“Clearly putting [GFP] into a human is not acceptable, but putting it into a mouse is perfectly OK,” he says. “So where do we draw the line between what is OK and what isn’t?”

Zimmer was disappointed after The Day of New London published a front-page story on his bioluminescence research and the late Glowy, the flourescent mouse. The silence was deafening. “There wasn’t one letter to the editor. Nobody cared,” he says. “I didn’t want people to come down on me, but in a way I thought they should.”

An inquiring mind

Then there is the matter of cow flatulence.

Gassy cows may seem an unlikely area for scientific study, but it is one that intrigues Marc Zimmer.

It seems that cows, when they flatulate, create large amounts of methane. “As for the cows,” he says, “I’m interested in the last step of methane production. It may produce information that can be used in the technology to produce natural gas in a controlled setting.”

Glowing genes have drawn Zimmer into the media light, but he is about much more than that. In fact, he estimates that only about one-third of his research concerns bioluminescence.

He has received research grants totaling more than $2.7 million. He has given talks in Cuba, India, South Africa and six European countries. He has published more than 50 research papers on cow flatulence, computational chemistry and glowing genes, and they have appeared in leading scientific journals. Other authors have cited his work in their own writings more than 200 times.

In 2001 he received the John S. King Memorial Award, which recognizes excellence in teaching. This year he was appointed to a prestigious new professorship endowed by the chair of the board of trustees: he was named the Barbara Zaccheo Kohn ’72 Professor of Chemistry.

Outside his laboratory and classroom, he devotes much of his time and energy to his family. He plays squash, and those who work with him say he sometimes can be spotted scanning a computer for the latest cricket scores from South Africa.

His curiosity reaches beyond science. He has written a mystery, as yet unpublished, featuring murder by rhino horn, attempted murder using a windsurfer, and a unique form of erectile dysfunction. Zimmer says he has talents in story organization and providing creative structure, but he needs to refine his writing skills. With this in mind, he took a course during the spring semester on campus with professor Blanche Boyd, whose writings are internationally acclaimed.

As he moves from challenge to challenge, he maintains a life that is in balance. The personal and professional mesh well together.

Bruce Branchini, who chairs the chemistry department, says Zimmer has the respect of fellow faculty members, as well as students. He praised Zimmer for his teaching abilities and for attracting research grants to the college. Branchini says he and Zimmer have collaborated in research, accomplishing considerably more working together than either of them would have working alone.

“He welcomes challenges and works well with others,” Branchini says. “He looks to explore new interests and his mind is always working.”

Zimmer holds something in common with all successful scientists and, as it turns out, with small children. He is always asking, “Why?”

For instance, he talks about the cloning on Dolly the sheep in Scotland, and the worldwide headlines that controversy generated. Then he considers the jacket of his “Glowing Genes” publication, the one with pictures of two pigs.

“Why is it,” he asks, “that people know all about Dolly the sheep, but they don’t know about the pig with a yellow snout?”


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