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Through the Eyes of an Embryologist

By Sharlene Gumbs, T.S.

November 12th, 2012 at 9:46 pm

Through the Eyes of an Embryologist

“When were you introduced to the word ‘embryologist’”?   This question was posed to me at a recent dinner meeting with my colleagues and other health care professionals.

At the time that I was asked, my mind was preoccupied with the triple chocolate mousse on the dessert menu. Thus, a very generic reply was given.  “School,” I said. On my way home that evening, the question popped in mind and I remembered that my introduction to the word “embryologist” began with a U.S.postage stamp.

In my junior year of college, I received an endearing letter from a fellow classmate. The letter was posted with a stamp of Ernest E. Just.  I knew little about the man on the postage except that he was African- American, a biologist, and worthy of a commemorative stamp.

After doing some library research, I discovered that E.E. Just, PhD was biologist in the early-mid 1900’s who studied the process of egg fertilization and embryo development in marine invertebrates.  Just is credited with being the first biologist or embryologist to observe and document a cortical change that sweeps over the egg at the point of sperm entry. This change or shift in egg cell membrane potential was defined by Just as the “wave of negativity” that prevents fertilization by more than one sperm (i.e., polyspermy).

Today, this wave is referred by scientists as the “fast block”.  Just was also the first to infer that the second block to polyspermy known as the “slow block” occurs as a result of the formation of a protective membrane around the fertilized egg.

In addition to being a pioneer in his field, Just was a humble and unassuming man who did not flinch at challenging the theories of leading biologists of his time. In one of the 70+ scientific papers published by Just, he criticized the theory of geneticist and noble laureate, T. H. Morgan.  Morgan, a former embryologist, theorized that genes on chromosomes within the nucleus controlled inheritance and embryo development.

Just, however, believed otherwise.  He was a traditional embryologist who postulated that the factors for inheritance were located in the egg cytoplasm and consequently the cytoplasm played a dominant role in embryo development.  Although Just’s cytoplasm- centered theory was ultimately erroneous, his explanation contained traces of truth.  Through scientific research, we know today that embryo development is a multi-faceted process that combines genetics, cytology, and embryology.

E. E. Just, PhD had a notable career in academia and in experimental embryology that spanned 50 years and two continents but he was not oblivious to the feelings of discomfort towards people of African diaspora.  Over the years, his tolerance for racial inequity in early 20th century America waned and he relocated to the Mediterranean.

InItaly, aside from room temperature vino rosso, Just discovered a relationship between blastomere adhesiveness in a cleavage embryo and embryo development.  Although his experiments were conducted on non-human subjects, a similar relationship can be observed when we, the clinical embryologists, assess IVF embryos.

With the onset of fascism in Italy, Just decided it was best to move his family to France.  It was in France that he completed his magnum opus The Biology of the Cell Surface, in which he writes “The cell is the biologist crucial unit of observation and the egg cell is the special domain of the embryologist”.

Sharlene Gumbs, T.S. (ABB)

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