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John von Neumann and the history of DNA and self-replication


Hunting for future-proof sciences
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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I was very active in hunting around as a naive young man for those sciences that could stand me in good stead for the future, which is a ludicrous activity. You know, you kind of say, 'Well, look, I think it's going to be topology that's going to give you the breakthrough', so you go and learn topology, you see. And I had been through things like rheology – I had a great passion on rheology – and I knew everything about thixotropy and rheopexy because I thought trying to find out all about the physical chemistry of cytoplasm wasn't a bad idea and I knew it would have something to do with physical chemistry.

[Q] Did you have a clear formulation of the problem in your mind?

No, I... I just knew that, you know, we had to get in there and do things. I think, at this stage the concept of information as separate from matter had not yet crystallised; that crystallised during this period prior to my going by reading von Neumann and my contacts with Seymour Papert, but I realised that this whole idea that the genes have to carry information and that there was no explanation of that.

[Q] You came to that before you went? Could you just explain…

Yes, yes, in fact I had a theory of protein synthesis before I went to Oxford.

[Q] I'm afraid you must explain this a little bit.

Yeah. So what had happened was I then applied to... to Hinshelwood and was accepted; I read his book The Chemical Kinetics of the Bacterial Cell. It's full of equations. It didn't say too much about the stuff that was going on there, which I realised was the important thing, but in the meantime… and I won one of these Royal Commissions for the Exhibition of 1851 Scholarships. There was only one a year to South Africa… for South Africa, and I won it and Seymour got it I think… his… a year or two later and that brought him to Cambridge. This was a great set of scholarships and so that got me to Oxford. But prior to this I had started to grapple with this business with the coding problem, as it's known now, and I got... I read Astbury's paper because I was an assiduous reader of... of symposia. I decided symposia tell you a lot of things and so I read all these articles there because... reading the literature in the sense we know it now. And I read an Astbury in the Society for Experimental Biology – the English one, symposium there – in which he pointed out this relationship between the step size of nucleic acid, 3.3Å units, and the step size of amino acids, 3.5Å units, and had discussed there about the amino acids being determined by the nucleic acid. There… yes, it's very early. Okay. And so… and Dounce of course had already written such coding papers. And in fact later I learnt that Hinshelwood had written a coding paper and there was a ferment of business and so I had actually developed, before I went to Oxford, an idea that in fact nucleic acids and amino acid and proteins were co-synthesised through aminoacyl nucleotide intermediates and I'd had the naive idea that they came in this way and in fact the... the base was joined to make a nucleic acid because we knew all that chemistry; had no idea about base pairing. And at the same time the amino acid was joined to make this and it was very crude... idea, but in fact I had a mechanism – what was very hot at that time was actophosphate bonds, and high energy phosphate bonds, and this seemed to me to fit pretty well and I had these great ideas that this is how you make proteins and specify them.

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: Oxford University, The Chemical Kinetics of the Bacterial Cell, Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, South Africa, Cambridge University, John von Neumann, Seymour Papert, Cyril Hinshelwood, William Astbury, Alexander L Dounce

Duration: 4 minutes, 54 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 24 January 2008