University of Geneva
David was a Post Doc and Research Scientist in Molecular Biology where he invented the DNA footprinting method
with Albert Schmitz.
CNRS Research Director (emeritus), Toulouse, France
Adjunct Professor, Department of Biochemistry
Georgetown University Medical Center (current)
Chance Encounters and Random Reminiscences of a Free Electron
I clearly remember a long way back, wandering the corridors of the Sciences II building in the Molecular Biology department at the University of Geneva and coming across an affable physicist from time to time. This was in the late 1970s and the affable physicist was one David Galas who had arrived in 1977 to work with Dr. lac, Jeffrey Miller, on the floor above the lab of Lucien Caro, where I was working as a young postdoc. There was a lot going on in the mainly American postdoc population of Biologie Moléculaire: both scientifically and socially. This is where David and another postdoc, Albert Schmidt conceived and developed the technique of DNase footprinting which provides a picture of how a given protein might bind to a given DNA site by protecting the DNA from DNase digestion.
However, it wasn't until a meeting in Cold Spring Harbor in 1978 when David and I discovered that we were both working on very similar subjects without realizing - communication between the first and second floors was clearly limited. We clicked…how couldn't we….and our collaboration on genetic transposition was launched as soon as we were back in Switzerland. It lasted for many years. The short time in Switzerland was scientifically exciting and was facilitated by our very different approaches to doing science. David had a “logical” mathematical approach - where he attempted to describe things by establishing a formalism - even though, to my mind, he would seem to pull terms out of the air (we need this type of function on this side of the equation….we need such or such constant to add on the other side…..). I was more “graphical” in my approach. But the two ways of thinking seemed to complement each other well and resulted in a large number of joint publications over the years.
The collaboration continued when he moved back to the US in 1981, as assistant, then associate professor and finally as chair of Molecular Biology and full professor (in that order!) at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. We decided that I would continue our work while he established himself at USC and he would do the same when, a couple of years later (1983), I moved to open a lab in Toulouse, France. The 1980s with David were exciting: visiting each other's lab and families; sharing and mentoring graduate students with exchange visits; trips to Disneyland; the discovery of an immense second-hand book warehouse, Acres of Books, in Long Beach; eating at Barney’s Beanery, Gorky’s Cafe and trips for Sushi into Japantown in Los Angeles as well as pizza and Burritos from food stands just off campus; and, in Toulouse, “la ville rose”, exploring the surrounding medieval villages and vineyards. To add to the dream, the Galas' home was initially located on a road called Wonderland Avenue in the Hollywood Hills before they moved to the Valley. The Wonderland Avenue house was previously owned by a Hollywood star during prohibition and folklore had it that there was an “escape route” over the back to avoid police raids.
At USC, David was very foresightful in his recruitment of faculty with arrivals such as Mike Waterman (of Smith–Waterman algorithm fame) and Norm Arnheim (who pioneered some early PCR analyses) among others. For a number of years I would arrive in USC and would be put in an office with a desk, a fridge full of coca cola, placed in front of a typewriter - and would write, discuss over a glass or several of wine often into the small hours….and,together with a very bright postdoc from Geneva, Pierre Prentki, David and I would fire off each other.
During this time, we wrote a number of papers including a rolling circle model to explain transposition (https://tnpedia.fcav.unesp.br/index.php/File:Fig2.12.png and File:Fig2.14.png) and a review on bacterial insertion sequences for the first ASM Mobile DNA book. The review turned out to be a massive intensive effort…. Kicking off with a visit of David to Toulouse and involving a young computer savvy colleague writing “code/decode” software to enable us to electronically send the manuscript back and forth between Toulouse and Los Angeles. This was 1988 the era of BITNET and the word processor WORDSTAR with black screens and green text….no simple file transfer protocols existed ….so “code” encoded the file into ASCI and “decode” converted it back to the WORDSTAR file at the other end. It took about 30 mins to transfer by modem….but the time zone difference meant that we could work at it for 24h (at least, that is what we told each other)! For some reason that neither of us can now remember, the review acquired the nickname “the fulcrum” - perhaps because it was such a balancing act to finish. Anyone reading this review will clearly see the influence of the Galas formalism!
David left USC in 1990 to become Director for Biological and Environmental Sciences at the U.S. Department of Energy which clearly limited his hands-on contributions to his lab. However, we continued to collaborate until the early 90s. I remember having a number of hour-long phone discussions with some of his graduate students during that period. We continued to remain closely in touch for some time and I would visit Bethesda once a year on trips to the US and stay with David in his apartment off Rockville Pike while visiting colleagues at the NIH in Bethesda. For me, this time provided a small window on Washington and his new life at DOE: eating at a local Szechuan restaurant; meeting up at the bar at Willard’s, hanging out on the Mall close to the downtown DOE offices.
Following David’s move to Seattle in 1993, visiting became more problematic although I did manage to visit once to see his environment at Darwin Molecular Corporation.
Now that both of us can relax more, since 2013 at my retirement seminar which he and his partner Diane attended, we are in regular video contact at least once a week and discuss many things not excluding science! David always was and remains very “laid back” to the extent where it was sometimes rather perturbing….for example when he would appear to fall asleep just before giving a major talk in front of a large meeting. I appreciated that very much! David is also very thoughtful. I remember every year for several years visiting Acres of Books to buy one of their many cheap copies of North by East by Rockwell Kent for the beautiful woodblock prints. On getting back to Toulouse, I could never bring myself to cut the illustrations out and frame them and I gave books to friends as presents. Then, on one visit, David presented me with an envelope which contained the carefully cut illustrations – and the comment that he knew that I would never be able to destroy a book so he had taken the plunge and done it for me. The woodblock prints are still on my wall.
Throughout his career David has proved to be a true free electron. He has showed an immense and impressive creativity in a number of fields of biology and has left his imprint on them.
It is a great pleasure to be able to call David one of my closest friends of the last 45 years.