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The DNA model: the beginning of molecular biology


My secret input into the DNA model
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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Now, Jack Dunitz was a crystallographer, and he had been at Cal Tech until he had returned to Oxford to work in… in Dorothy Hodgkin's laboratory. And it is Jack who knew Pauling and Jack and I had many discussions and started discussing things including my ideas about DNA and… DNA and how to determine the structure of DNA which was just complete nonsense I should say, because my idea was that you did it by… by binding dyes to it – proflavine – and then look at ultraviolet dichroism and I thought you might be able to crystallise it with a dye. I also through… through Jack met Leslie Orgel who was also at Oxford, a theoretical chemist, and we started a little group of meetings in which I talked to them about genetics and of course I learnt a little bit about structure from them. And it was through Jack later that I heard… I heard in about November of that year – this is November 1952… I heard through Jack of this idea of Francis Crick about helical diffraction. It was a paper that Francis published prior to the DNA which is The Theory of Helical Diffraction [sic], and which of course leads to the interpretation of the X-ray structure. One interesting sidelight that... was that I was visited in January of that year, of the next year, or sometime around that, but certainly prior to the publication of the DNA structure, by Jerry Donohue. Jerry Donohue was a friend of Jack's and he came to visit me in the physical chemistry library and we were talking about the DNA bases, and I just drew one of them and he said, 'Why do you draw it this way?' And I said to him, 'Because I've always drawn it this way. This is the way I've seen it in the books that I have read.' Now, it's quite interesting; I mean, I can't say that there was a direct connection, but it was Jerry that pointed out to the people that they were using the incorrect tautomer and it is a… and I had found this and of course I… I had it in a… in a paper. Most people drew the bases in the OH form. Of course, that's the wrong form, rather than in the Keto form which is the correct form to see the base pairing, so it may have been a little bit of input prior to... to that as well and it was just… I mean, I didn't have any profound chemical understanding, I just simply... just always looked at it this way and didn't think of it in any other form.

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: Cal Tech, California Institute of Technology, Oxford University, Jack D Dunitz, Dorothy Hodgkin, Linus Pauling, Leslie Orgel, Francs Crick, Jerry Donohue

Duration: 3 minutes, 39 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 24 January 2008