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Fran├žois Jacob and genetics


Acceptance of the paper
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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[Q] Sydney, just why did you wait for Watson's paper?

Well, we gathered from communication with Matt Meselson that it was a matter of weeks that they would produce their results. We knew they didn't… they hadn't done the sort of experiments that we had done, because what we had decided to go for was a really definitive one which would demonstrate that new RNA was added to old ribosomes. And their experiments involved in showing there was an RNA fraction that was on ribosomes. They did this by a sucrose gradient technique. As it happened our paper sat around for a few months, because I think… and… but it doesn't matter. As far as we're concerned, it was I think the experiment had its own intrinsic value, and in fact what to me, you know, was not reproduced by the Watson was in fact the… the logical depth of our argument. And now that seems ridiculous that we would try to exclude, you know, other models. And in fact, as I recall, you know, this kind of style of saying, 'We propose three models', you know, and this I… later on in… in life, someone got up at a meeting and said, 'I wish to propose two models: model A and model B'. And he said… 'Well,' he said, 'either model A is right or model B is right.' And I said, 'You've forgotten there's a third alternative'. He said, 'What's that?' I said, 'Both could be wrong', you see. So we thought we had done the exhaustive enumeration of the current possibilities. But of course that experiment came at the right time.

[Q] Was it accepted at once?

Oh, yes. I know that Arthur Kornberg did not like to accept it. Soon after giving this… doing this work at Cal Tech, I went up to Stanford to give a lecture and I received a long lecture, a fatherly lecture, from Arthur Kornberg – which irritated me, I have to say – telling me I didn't understand intermediary metabolism. And I can remember being quite annoyed and giving him, you know, the kind of child's four year old explanation, or the explanation for four year olds of the difference between the apparent and the true base composition which does not depend on pools. You see, most biochemists said, 'Well, this could be affected by the pool size and the labelling of it by the tracer'. But you can show that it isn't. The only thing that can affect it is if it isn't random. And that's an assumption which we said, but pool size doesn't matter at all, so… However, it did take a lot of time to jar people out of this, and also to jar them out of the idea that you could actually do an experiment like this and take it as evidence. You know, you could actually say, 'Look, these are old ribosomes', and… and get people to accept the… the actual style of the experiment. See, that's another… it's very popular these days to have an experiment done in a certain style and then every paper has to be written in that style and you aren't allowed to publish a paper until you've fulfilled this. So there was a time that unless you had a sucrose gradient of something, you couldn't publish a paper. There was another time that you had to show a heteroduplex in an electron microscope and if you didn't have this… you know, I thought one day that I would make one of these things out of rope on a beach and just photograph it and just say, 'I've done the heteroduplex – there it is'. But I find that this is… this is the thing. So nobody had ever done a paper which involved, you know, isotope 13C and 15N in this form. And I think at those days that… that got into Nature and specified what it was.

South African Sydney Brenner (1927-2019) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. His joint discovery of messenger RNA, and, in more recent years, his development of gene cloning, sequencing and manipulation techniques along with his work for the Human Genome Project have led to his standing as a pioneer in the field of genetics and molecular biology.

Listeners: Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London. His research interests are in the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. He was originally trained as a civil engineer in South Africa but changed to research in cell biology at King's College, London in 1955. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the CBE in 1990. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999. He has presented science on both radio and TV and for five years was Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science.



Listen to Lewis Wolpert at Web of Stories



Tags: Cal Tech, California Institute of Technology, Stanford University, Nature, James Watson, Matthew Meselson, Arthur Kornberg

Duration: 4 minutes, 35 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 24 January 2008