Henry Gee

1953 and All That

Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code


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In A Bedside Nature (1996), a potpourri of clippings from the journal Nature from its founding in 1869, editor Walter Gratzer decided not to continue to the present day but to stop in 1953, the year that saw the publication of the structure of DNA. Hindsight will say that the paper on DNA’s structure by Francis Crick and James D Watson changed everything, sundering the past and the present. Gratzer called 1953 the ‘End of History’, in conscious homage to that affectionate spoof history textbook 1066 and All That by W C Sellar and R J Yeatman, in which that appellation was given to the year 1914.

The year you use to mark the End of History, especially when capitalised, will of course depend on your age and upbringing. Francis Fukuyama marked the End of History with the rise of liberal democracy and the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. My mother, on the other hand, refers to any event after the assassination of John F Kennedy as happening ‘the other day’. Yet many biologists agree that if one had to pick any year in which the discipline of biology changed, in its methods, attitudes and consequences, 1953 would be the one. Before 1953, biology was, if not quite stamp collecting, then a business of finding rules amid a welter of exceptions. After 1953, biology became mechanised, predictive, hugely collaborative and immensely profitable, as the business of DNA fed into the enormous pharmacological-industrial complex. The year 1953 is as important, in its way, as 1066, 1492 or, indeed, 1914.

History rarely admits to such easy compartmentalisation, even here. Watson and Crick’s paper didn’t come out of nowhere. It was in fact a somewhat slender missive, reliant on the work of others published in the same issue of Nature and elsewhere. Neither did it end the debate – papers postulating different structures for DNA continued to be published. The Watson and Crick paper is doubly notorious for its use of the sentence ‘It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material’ – a sentence so coy and so arch that the editors of Nature to this day ruthlessly strike it out of any submission it receives in which it is quoted. (I know. It has happened to me.)

It has also been said that history belongs to the victors, whose account will inevitably be partial. For many, the history of the discovery of DNA will have come down to them from The Double Helix, Watson’s own account of the events leading up to the discovery, written fairly soon afterwards. And with good reason – The Double Helix is lively, brilliantly written and at times very funny. The fact that people are still reading it is perhaps testament, in part, to the general dearth of scientific memoirs that match its wit and style. It is not, however, history. Anyone who reads it nowadays should have a copy of Life’s Greatest Secret to hand, in which Matthew Cobb gives the background to the discovery of the structure of DNA and the subsequent attempts to unlock the genetic code – the process whereby the sequence of DNA’s constituent parts (the repeating strings of subunits called bases) was found to contain the information to encode the sequence of amino acids in proteins.

If picking the events of a single year as epochal is an arbitrary exercise, tracing the roots of an event is even more difficult. Cobb cannot pinpoint when it was that the interests of biologists converged on the genetic code, so Life’s Greatest Secret starts disparately and unevenly. If it started anywhere, it was with the migration of physicists into biology during and immediately after the Second World War. In 1943 the physicist Erwin Schrödinger (he of the famously indeterminate cat) gave three lectures in Dublin on the relationship between life and thermodynamics. These formed the germ of a short book entitled What Is Life?, which was published the following year and influenced the coming generation of biologists, including Watson. A second strand was the emerging concepts of information, control and feedback, signatures of an increasingly mechanised age, crystallised in Norbert Wiener’s book Cybernetics (1948), in which the parallels between biology and physics were made explicit. The book was a huge hit, despite containing quite a few eye-popping equations, and gave us the prefix ‘cyber’ found in everything from sci-fi cyberpunk to the Cybermen of Doctor Who. The similarities between computers and living things turned out to be more metaphorical than actual, but it got people thinking.

Beginnings dispatched, Cobb gets into his stride with a straightforward chronological account of the discovery of DNA and the subsequent ‘race’ to decipher the genetic code, unpicking the correspondence, the conferences, the huddles, the meetings – official and unofficial – whereby scientific information spread and made its way into print. A particularly useful service is his study of the relationships between the crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, her boss Maurice Wilkins at King’s College London and Watson. The fiery Franklin and the self-effacing Wilkins would probably not have got along in any event, but matters were made worse by a miscommunication that left Franklin under the impression that she would be in charge of studying DNA with X-rays, when Wilkins thought that this would be his domain.

It’s also thought that Watson and Crick ‘stole’ Franklin’s X-ray data, using it, uncredited, to inform their model of DNA structure. Well, only up to a point. Franklin’s data was no secret. In fact, she presented it at a lecture at which Watson was present, but he missed its significance, partly because he did not understand enough crystallography, but also because he was distracted by fantasies about Franklin herself.

What, then, of endings? Cobb has written a substantial final section, noting how molecular biology, particularly the technology of sequencing DNA, has advanced up to the present day, allowing us to trace the roots of technology we take for granted back to the heroic age of the 1940s and 1950s. One of the people involved, Gunther Stent, gave an overview of the period in a paper entitled ‘That Was the Molecular Biology That Was’. It was published in 1968 – the same year as The Double Helix. Scientists always seem to have in mind a particular year for when history ended.

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