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The 'old days' experiments


The RNA Tie Club
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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[Q] You saw yourself as part of fringe science still?

Well, of course at that stage you have to remember that in 1953, '54, this is what we're talking about – '52 and '53 and '54, it's this period I'm talking about – there were very few people that even knew what we were talking about, you see, and if you look you can judge this by looking at who Gamow had in the RNA Tie Club. Gamow founded the RNA Tie Club, which was a club of people that were interested in coding. Everybody there was… were friends of Gamow, and so the… the club had 20 members, each who had a name of an amino acid. Needless to say, Gamow was alanine. And Francis, Leslie Orgel and myself were the last three. Francis was… Francis was tryptophan, Leslie Orgel was tyrosine, and I was valine, the last one. Of course alphabetical order there. And all the rest were friends of Gamow, so Nick Metropolis was a member of the Tie Club. Why? Because Nick Metropolis worked at Los Alamos on computers, and he was a friend of Gamow and they were going to crack the code with computers. The… the club had four honorary members, who were called by the bases. It had a… it had a Chief Optimist, that was Jim; a Chief Pessimist, that was Francis; these were the offices – it was a typical Gamow thing. He put it together, and I still have letters from him written on the notepaper of the 20th Century Limited. The remarkable story told about Gamow… Gamow had a job in Washington but was a consultant to Los Alamos, so travelled west very frequently and one day landed up in Chicago, which is where the trains… you had to change trains, and he ran out of money. And he went into this hotel and he started to… and he wanted to change a cheque; he had no money. But his cheque was on a bank in Woods Hole, the Falmouth Bank, and so he then produced – he then told him he was a professor in Washington, he produced his Los Alamos security card as identification – a... a bank in Falmouth, Massachusetts. So the young man there was looking very suspiciously at this character and what he was looking at was Gamow's tie pin. Because each member of the RNA Tie Club had a tie and a tie pin on which was printed his name. So he was looking at this thing called Alanine. So Gamow said to him… you know, he's saying, 'My name is Gamow', and so on. 'Oh,' he says, 'I see you looking at my tie pin.' And he says, 'It's… it's Alanine there'. He says, 'I'll have to explain it to you'. He says…'Tell me,' he says, 'how much do you know about the structure of DNA?' So when I say it's a fringe thing, I mean, it certainly did not include people trying to change… to change cheques. But it was a fringe thing and it was a thing in which people seriously doubted. I can tell you without saying who was involved, but as 1958… the whole of DNA was still thought to be a flash in the pan, not right, you know, not known, not proven. And to actually believe in this in 1955 and actually start to do experiments on it, this was something that was just implausible. Because it was neither genetics, nor was it biochemistry.

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: RNA Tie Club, 1952, 1953, 1954, Los Alamos, Washington DC, Woods Hole, George Washington University, Falmouth, Massachusetts, George Gamow, Leslie Orgel, Nicholas Metropolis, James Watson, Francis Crick

Duration: 4 minutes, 34 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 24 January 2008