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The balance between ignorance and knowledge
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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Well, you ask about the balance between ignorance and knowledge. Of course, I've said it's good to be ignorant and I've also said it's good to know, in fact, I do know a lot. I think it is good to be ignorant about a new field and know a lot about the old ones, as you transit from the old to the new. And maybe… so those things are not as contradictory as they may seem. Let me give you one example. I mean, two years ago I wrote a paper called Encoded Combinatorial Chemistry. This was a rather bizarre, and I think very important conceptually, and possibly a technological… technological invention, in which we apply genetic arguments and the… and actually give a mechanism of using it in… for inanimate material. And the question that is proposed there is how would you take just ordinary chemistry and be able to do natural selection on it? And of course you can't, if you say, natural selection depends on replication – I mean, glucose can't replicate itself. So that means that's out. So what you have to do is basically to have a lot of glucose and be able to extract more from it than you start with. And that's possible. Since the only thing you can replicate is DNA, then what you have to do is to have a gene for glucose. But of course we don't want to invent a gene that makes glucose, but now with technology we can actually synthesise a gene and we can say this gene stands for glucose. Right? So that means we simply have a table and we simply attach this gene to glucose, which is the way we put glucose into the same area, into the same physical environment as this gene — the way we link phenotype to genotype. But if you look at this... this is very… this is completely different to the standard genetic system, in which we actually define the genotype from the phenotype. Now, this means that with this genetic tag and with PCR [polymerase chain reaction] we can always amplify the tag. But if you think about it, the tag — because DNA is double-stranded — every time we amplify a tag we get both chains. Therefore one chain is always a specific way to enrich for glucose. Therefore formally in such systems you can realise Darwinian selection for systems that are purely chemical simply by reversing the information transfer, if you like, by the intervention of human discipline. Now, it's very lucky that I knew very little about chemistry, because when this proposition, which is theoretically correct, was shown to chemists it was turned down by people saying, you'll never be able to make these. That is, you know, you just argue out of ignorance, well, I'm sure there must be the various protecting groups that you can do. No, many people looked at this and said it's impossible to do. Now, I think they knew too much organic chemistry, and the fact that we persisted and do it depended on me being completely, well, not completely ignorant, but ignorant enough about the field to say, well, it is not beyond the wit of chemists to find this if they look hard enough. But of course, the original thinking there was nothing to do with organic chemistry, and it had to do with the… the logic of knowing a lot about genetics and knowing a lot about what the things really meant there. So that is what I think it's important, why I say it's important to be ignorant, because had I listened to the organic chemists that would never be a practical thing. So, since I've spent a lot of time in my life in going from one field to another I've always… always been in this permanent transition between knowledge and ignorance. So maybe I just find it a very natural way to proceed.

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: 5 minutes, 7 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010