Keith Baverstock graduated in chemistry from London University. His Ph D, also from London University, was in chemical kinetics. He was an NRC of Canada postdoctoral fellow at Atomic Energy of Canada in Pinawa, Manitoba, for 2 years, returning to the UK and Nottingham University for further postdoctoral work. In 1971 he joined the UK Medical Research Council’s Radiobiology Unit with the dual remit of research and advising on public health aspects of radiation exposure. In 1991 he joined the World Health Organisation and was instrumental in uncovering the “epidemic” of childhood thyroid cancer resulting from the Chernobyl accident. On retirement from the WHO in 2003 he continued his research at the University of Kuopio, now the University of Eastern Finland.
Of specific interest to this site is Baverstock’s attempt to put the phenomenon of genomic instability (GI) into a genetic context. However, GI does not conform to Mendelian inheritance rules and it has to be concluded that the phenomenon is a generic response of the cell to environmental stress. Where GI exhibits as chromosomal damage the cellular phenotype is modifying the genotype, in other words causation is downwards, not upwards.
This empirically based conclusion raises a profound challenge to the current concept of the gene as Mendel’s unit of inheritance and responsible for phenotypic traits. Arto Annila of Helsinki University has proposed that rather than acting on genetic variance natural selection acts upon the efficiency with which an organism can extract nutrient from its environment in order to grow and reproduce. Essentially organisms can be seen as energy conversion entities governed by the second law of thermodynamics and Maupertuis’ principle of least action. Based on this premise and using the more appropriate physics of complex dissipative systems, Baverstock has reformulated the way the cell “works” in terms of attractor states representing phenotype.
Clearly, a formulation of biology which sees genes as subservient to phenotype requires a reformulation of the theory of evolution – a start on this has been made in the paper co-authored with Annila entitled “Genes without prominence: a reappraisal of the foundations of biology”.