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Using magnesium to compete with caesium: radioactive Coca-Cola

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Experiments with Tape RNA
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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I then started to do some preliminary experiments here, and I did an experiment which was never published but in fact is quite an interesting experiment, because it proved that no new ribosomes could be made and this experiment which… which involves the following. If you take bacteria and starve them of magnesium, then after a long period of time – they remain viable – they lose their ribosomes and they destroy them and they turn them over, and that means that when you start 'em up again, by giving them a good medium, they have to take a long time to make new ribosomes to get going. So what I said, 'Well, I'll do a quickie'. That's an… that's an experiment which you'll see if you're on the right grounds because if it is true that new ribosomes are made after phage infection, my destroying the old ones wouldn't have any… any effect, and they should just take off and do the same thing. Was absolutely… the experiment was beautifully clear because the fewer the ribosomes that you have as they destroy... so you let… you destroy them, you then infect them at different periods, and you ask how much virus can you make, and it goes down, and it goes down, and there comes a point where you don't make anything because of course after phage infection you don't make any ribosomes. So that said… you know, then I knew I have to be right. And then we went to California to do this experiment and that was a hilarious story which has been told by François because you go to do quite a difficult experiment – I mean, it's technically quite complex – and I have to do it in three weeks, and I didn't even know whether it would work, even if we could get it to work. And one of the terrible things is that everything started to fall apart in the density gradient. The ribosomes were not stable and so every experiment failed. These experiments were awful; they took a lot of expensive isotope, and you didn't know the answer until you had run it in a centrifuge for a day, and of course if anything went wrong, if the centrifuge broke down, it was really terrible. So kind of getting this through to the end in an intact form was… was a thing, and every experiment we did didn't work, and I remember people saying, 'Well, you know, you're… it's going to take a year's work of exploratory, you know, normal science, to do this', and one of the amusing things was of course Max Delbrück didn't believe this hypothesis of the unstable intermediate. We called it messenger RNA there, but we had another name for it; we called it Tape RNA – it was called that for a short while – just being the idea that the ribosomes were like players, you know, like a tape player, and you fed them with tape. Actually, in my mind that was the old Turing machine you see. You fed a tape into this machine and it would play out its results, so it was called tape, and it was the whole idea of a message tape, and that of course strikes one now today as obvious that that would be the analogy. But then it was a very… you know, very dramatic thing, and Max Delbrück… I said to François… I said, 'You know we're fine'. He said, 'Why?' I said, 'Max doesn't believe in it'. Because Max was marvellous; he was always wrong. There are marvellous stories told about Max. George Streisinger tells a story in his... in his essay on Max Delbrück that effectively he was met coming out of Max's office looking very depressed and someone said, 'What's the matter?' He says, 'Max likes my theory; it must be wrong'. So the whole idea of doing… so I told François, 'Don't bother, Max thinks it's wrong, it must be right, you see', so we had a tremendous episode – this has been told – but one of the interesting things was where do you go from this?

South African Sydney Brenner 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: California, François Jacob, Max Delbrück, George Streisinger, Alan Turing

Duration: 5 minutes, 6 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 24 January 2008