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Sense and nonsense: the Commaless Code


Another hypothesis: base additions and deletions
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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Talking in the Eagle one time, I knew that proflavine… because of my long interest in these damn acridine dyes and their attachment to DNA and all the measurements that had been made in the early '50s by people, though I began to wonder whether in fact there was not another hypothesis. And in fact by some very tortuous reasoning which of course clarified the moment one said it, I said that, 'What would it be like if there were not only base substitutions but base additions and deletions?' And I suddenly realised that you could get that if you stuck proflavine into the DNA, right, or if it went between the base pairs as people did it – intercalation – and you could have a thing where the DNA thought it… this was another base and stuck an extra one in, okay, or it thought on the other side, if it was copying the other strand and made a deletion – that there was a base running free. So the whole idea then came of some connection between additions and deletions, all right? And this then said of course that acridine mutants would have a drastic effect.

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: The Eagle, 1950s

Duration: 1 minute, 41 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 24 January 2008