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Looking for a new subject and inventing names


The importance of understanding molecular structure (Part 2)
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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It gives a lot of people, I should say, a problem. Because when you think about it in even a larger scale, and if you say, 'Well, the behaviour of an organism is specified in the genome; of course we want to… we want to know the whole principle of construction in between'. So when someone says that those little ducks that follow Lorenz around are programmed to follow him around, I mean, we don't think in the DNA it says follow Dr Lorenz around. So what you have to do is you have to have the genes, the genes then have to work in cells, the cells then have to build a nervous system, the nervous system has to have certain capacities for learning, and that's the way the genes specify: follow Dr Lorenz around. So the argument is very clear; you have to open the box. It is not an input/output system, because what's in the box can actually determine your theory of how this can work. And I think this is so important in biology and many people think you've got to get your hands on the meat as well as the... as well as, you know, the... the generalisation, and I think that's true; because after all, what we're trying to explain is a very complicated thing. We have a genome here. It's just this very simple array of bases. We have at the other end of it the most elaborate structures, the most… the most bizarre functions of anything, right. We also have a theory that says you can make changes in this and you can affect what it looks like at the other end, and your sense tells you. I don't believe that, because usually if you have something as complicated as this and you make a change in it you just mess it up completely. So we have to have what I call the grammar of the system. Part of how you build it up, you construct it, you develop it, is part of that grammar. And unless you include that in the explanation it can't make sense. Hence I think structure at all levels is important. Francis has a very good statement, he says, 'Function is terribly hard to investigate, so when you can't study function you do the next best thing, which is to study structure. And I think that this was important although the exact intellectual connection between structural people and people interested in what we were interested in, which is information, and how the information gets out of the genes and how it is used to... to specify all of this, that wasn't as tight a question as it is, because I think that for a long time, even today, structure has been dominated by technical... technical peaks that had to be climbed. And technical accomplishment became very important, so, you know, if you did a molecule of 17,000, then the next time you went on to one of 30,000 – you know, which was eight times as difficult – so that you could expand the boundaries of this. It's… it's to me a most remarkable fact that the only person that really understands the structure of anything is the person who did that structure. So if you want to find out about haemoglobin go and talk to Max. Because Max is the only person who really understands haemoglobin. And so I think that… that is now one of the things that this… however, I have to say that it was this genetics, which is I think what we were interested in – and it was protein chemistry, which was what Fred Sanger was interested, together with the structural thing that… that really when put together was all of the future of molecular biology, because what we had were the molecules of information and the molecules of function.

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: Konrad Lorenz, Francis Crick, Max Perutz, Frederick Sanger

Duration: 4 minutes, 37 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 24 January 2008