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Internal suppressors: the Theory of Mutagenesis


The curtain opens: the importance of conversation
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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I certainly know at… for my own, since I believe I was… I was the first to have the curtain drawn, at least that's how it seemed to me. That for me, I… suddenly the curtain got opened and I could see it all. And certainly I don't think I would have been led to think about that funny connection; you see, the thing is this: you talk about phage T4, you get all involved in the intricacies of this, and if you talk about two things simultaneously, so, you know, you have a lot of green balls bouncing and you have a lot of red balls bouncing, then sometimes you can just see one set of balls bouncing the same way. And I think that is so necessary to continue, you know, almost hysterical conversation, just constitutive talking, because I think that brings things together that you don't actually see by… logical deduction, because most logical deduction you just go around in the same circle and you need to break out of it. So at least for me, bringing this together… and I know that I'd had concerns about this, but I couldn't formulate it and I couldn't see what this was. And, you know, one just didn't understand… put that all together at the time. And at the moment one saw there was this intermediate… now, one of the unfortunate things, I should say, was that messenger got defined as being unstable. Now, it happens to be unstable in bacteria. But of course this was used as a great argumentative point, then when people later on found there was a whole lot of RNA in eukaryotic cells which was unstable but wasn't messenger. I mean, we now know what this is all about; it was the hnRNA. But instability was never the criterion. Instability was required to explain induction. And to explain how fast you could turn off induction. There was no memory for induction, so you had to say you get the message and you use it up. But it was not necessary. The necessary concept is that you add something to a machine which use… which gets instructed by it. It is effectively all these old ideas, you know, of the Turing machine, the von Neumann machine, to actually be able to say this is tape. And of course, what you do then is you use the analogies that come from everyday life, you know, and there were tape recorders just making their appearance then and you said, well, you know, you put the tape in the machine, the tape reads it, we had teletype printers which used tape. So I think it's that, and an analogical thinking which gives you… which gives you this. Of course, I… I was… I had an unfortunate thing at the Cold Spring Harbor symposium. I said, 'We call this messenger RNA', and I said, 'Well, you know, because messenger… Mercury was the messenger of the gods'. And Chargaff very quickly stood up in the audience and said, 'Yes, I wish to point out that Mercury may have been the messenger of the gods, but he was also the god of the thieves', you see, which said a lot for… which said a lot for… for Chargaff at the time. But it's a very witty remark. But I don't think we stole anything from anybody there, except from nature. I think it's right to steal from nature.

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: Cold Spring Harbor, Erwin Chargaff

Duration: 3 minutes, 55 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 24 January 2008