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It's DNA, Jim, but not as we know it

Boz magazine, 57: 12, February 1999.

Brian J Ford

Bitter arguments, rivalry, salesmanship and death . . . yes, it’s the story of DNA. The truth is far more entertaining than the laundered version in the books. We are often told that DNA came to light in 1953, but it was actually discovered in 1869. There wasn’t much interest shown in DNA until 1946, when the Society for Experimental Biology started planning a meeting on ‘respiration’. Within weeks a furious row broke out between people with different theories, and in desperation it was decided to change to a bland topic on which everyone would agree. They chose ‘nucleic acids’ as a safe subject, and interest in DNA was suddenly rekindled. The race was on to unravel how it worked.

There were two great scientists who produced the evidence for the strange nature of the DNA molecule — the celebrated double helix, as everyone now knows. No, they were not Crick and Watson, but Wilkins and Franklin. Maurice Wilkins was a New Zealander who in realised in 1951 that the study of proteins in nucleus of living cells would throw light on genetics. Wilkins recognised that the DNA molecule was shaped like a spiral, and the idea of a helix was born. Rosalind Franklin was a brilliant young crystallographer, and it was she who made the crucial discoveries about the structure of DNA which led people to the final version — the double helix.

Francis Crick, from Northampton, and James Watson, from Chicago, were great opportunists and neither was experienced in the study of genetics. Francis Crick had worked on magnetic mines before becoming fascinated by biology. Jim Watson was a child prodigy who rose to fame on the Chicago TV Kid Quiz Show. His main interest was bird-watching and he applied to specialise in the subject when he applied to Indiana University as a graduate student. When they became friends at Cambridge they decided that DNA would be a notable topic to tackle. They chatted to everyone who was already working on it. Rosalind Franklin was angry that her crucial results were being used by people who did not fully understand the problem. She regarded them as two clowns up to pranks. An eminent chemist, Erwin Chargaff, had analysed the chemical structure of DNA and he met with Crick and Watson for a discussion. He censored them for knowing little of his own major discoveries, and dismissed them as a pair of salesmen.

When news of their scheme got out, their head of department, Professor Lawrence Bragg, banned them from further research on DNA. Crick was given a project on ‘x-ray studies of polypeptides and proteins’, and Watson was told to work on tobacco mosaic virus. The two kept working on a the various molecular models, until on 27 February 1953 they had a proposal that almost fitted the facts. Crick pointed out that there were still two remaining problems, so the next morning Watson got out the model kit again and began to make a few changes. When Crick came in a little later, he agreed with the answer Watson was proposing.

Crick strode along Free School Lane for a beer at The Eagle. He walked into the bar telling everyone that they had just found the ‘secret of life’. Wilkins wrote them a letter to saying: ‘I think you are a couple of old rogues’, but agreeing that their model seemed to fit the known facts. Bragg, who had tried to stop their research, said: ‘Well, it’s all Greek to me.’ In the event, Crick, Watson and Wilkins shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for Medicine; Franklin died of leukaemia by the time she was thirty. We now think of DNA as the key to the ‘selfish gene’. Although this idea is linked with the name of Richard Dawkins, it actually arose from the work of a London zoologist, William Hamilton, who proposed that the cardinal principle of ‘aid given to relatives’ was a key to the survival of a species. Hamilton attracted a cult following, for this was a controversial new idea.

One of his followers was George Price and the two collaborated for a time, but Price became increasingly disturbed. He withdrew from formal academic life, turned to religion, and eventually killed himself in a squalid London tenement.

Our ability to manipulate genes is far from new. Since the stone age people have been creating new forms of life — wheat and barley, cats and goldfish — and no genetic engineer has planned anything as grotesque as a cauliflower or a Pekinese dog. There is an urgent need for people to understand the story of genetics, and to see that it’s a topic ruled by emotions and rivalry as much as by science.

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