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Molecular Genetics and gene cloning


Falling in love with a mistake
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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You know, the… the thing is the other… the other difficulty in science and in doing science is someone who gets hold of an idea which he then falls in love… falls in love with, right, and he can't let it go. Usually because this is so… it is so far out that he's certain no one else has thought of it and he really wants to… to bring this new torch of knowledge to mankind. And of course achieve fame and wealth at the same time. And there are many people that do this, often again starting from a mistake. Starting from something that is a phenomenon, but a phenomenon of that particular instance. I mean, I'm not saying these people invent observations, they do make the observations but they are due to dirty tubes or somebody running their fingers across a petri dish or just leaving the window open when the most surprising things will grow on your… on your petri dish. But they start from a fluctuation of the world — they're generated by Murphy's Law basically — and you come to believe that this is the ultimate solution and you do experiments which although would… at one point should lead you to question the nature of the observation, nevertheless drive you. And in fact one of the famous things that happened was in a subject that I gave the name — created a new subject for — called hydro-immunology. Now, this was a man called Benveniste who actually believed that he had some immune phenomena, some antibody… antigen phenomena, but in fact he had diluted this below, as it was said, Avogadro's number, so that the only possibility for making the… for making the observations he had done was that the antibody molecules had left their memory in the structure of the water. They had somehow recorded that they had been there, and the water then retained that memory and did the answer. Now of course that's a great theory. The other possibility to explain these experiments is that the measurements were wrong. Which they almost certainly were, because this is ludicrous. And so when I was asked about this and I had been told that he had diluted it below the value of Avogadro's number, I said had he tried avocado's number. And they said, ‘What is avocado's number?’. I said, ‘It's the number of molecules in a guacamole.’ And I actually managed to get this published in Science, without referees.

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



Duration: 3 minutes, 28 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010