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The Double Helical Structure of DNA: Scientific Canon Today, but Iconoclastic at the Time

03/03/2014 10:13 GMT | Updated 30/04/2014 10:59 BST

On this day in 1953, James D. Watson and Francis H.C. Crick announced their discovery of the structure of DNA.

I recently had the privilege of speaking with Professor Sydney Brenner, Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, who worked closely with Watson and Crick at Cambridge's Medical Research Council's (MRC) Laboratory for Molecular Biology (LMB) on their quest to unlock the genetic code.

The 1950s to 1960s at the LMB was a renaissance of biological discovery, when a group of young, intrepid scientists made fundamental advances that overturned conventional thinking. An extraordinary number of successive innovations elucidated our understanding of the genetic code, the process by which cells in our body translate information stored in our DNA into proteins, vital molecules important to the structure and functioning of cells.

It was here that Watson and Crick discovered the double-helical structure of DNA. Brenner was one of the first scientists to see this ground-breaking model, driving from Oxford, where he was working at the time in the Department of Chemistry, to Cambridge to witness this breakthrough.

This young group of scientists, considered renegades at the time, made a series of successive revolutionary discoveries that ultimately led to the creation of a new field called molecular biology. This new information ushered in a new era of biological science and has formed the basis of nearly all subsequent discoveries in the field, from understanding the mechanisms of diseases, to the development of new drugs for diseases such as cancer.

Imagining the creative energy that drove these discoveries was truly inspirational, and so, I asked Professor Brenner what it felt like to be part of this scientific adventure.

Sydney Brenner: I think it's really hard to communicate that because I lived through the entire period from its very beginning, and it took on different forms as matters progressed. So it was, of course, wonderful. That's what I tell students. The way to succeed is to get born at the right time and in the right place. If you can do that then you are bound to succeed. You have to be receptive and have some talent as well.

To have seen the development of a subject, which was looked upon with disdain by the establishment from the very start, actually become the basis of our whole approach to biology today. That is something that was worth living for.

I remember Francis Crick gave a lecture in 1958, in which he discussed the adapter hypothesis at the time. He proposed that there were twenty enzymes, which linked amino acids to twenty different molecules of RNA, which we call adapters. It was these adapters that lined up the amino acids. The adapter hypothesis was conceived I think as early as 1954 and of course it was to explain these two languages: DNA, the language of information, and proteins, the language of work.

Of course that was a paradox, because how did you get one without the other? That was solved by discovering that a molecule from RNA could actually have function. So this information on RNA, which happened much later really, solved that problem as far as origins were concerned.

(Professor Brenner was far too modest here, as it was he who discovered RNA's critical role in this translation from gene to protein.)

So he [Crick] gave the lecture and biochemists stood up in the audience and said this is completely ridiculous, because if there were twenty enzymes, we biochemists would have already discovered them. To them, the fact that they still hadn't went to show that this was nonsense. Little did the man know that at that very moment scientists were in the process of finding the very first of these enzymes, which today we know are the enzymes that combined amino acids with transfer RNA. And so you really had to say that the message kept its purity all the way through.

What people don't realise is that at the beginning, it was just a handful of people who saw the light, if I can put it that way. So it was like belonging to an evangelical sect, because there were so few of us, and all the others sort of thought that there was something wrong with us. But once you saw the light you were just certain that you had to be right, that it was the right way to do it and the right answer. And of course our faith, if you like, has been borne out.

They weren't willing to believe. Of course they just said, well, what you're trying to do is impossible. That's what they said about crystallography of large molecules. They just said it's hopeless. It's a hopeless task. And so what we were trying to do with the chemistry of proteins and nucleic acids looked hopeless for a long time. Partly because they didn't understand how they were built, which I think we molecular biologists had the first insight into, and partly because they just thought they were amorphous blobs and would never be able to be analysed.

I remember when going to London to talk at meetings, people used to ask me what am I going to do in London, and I used to tell them I'm going to preach to the heathens. We viewed most of everybody else as not doing the right science. Like one says, the young Turks will become old Greeks. That's the trouble with life. I think molecular biology was marvellous because every time you thought it was over and it was just going to be boring, something new happened. It was happening every day.

So I don't know if you can ride on the crest of a wave; you can ride on it, I believe, forever. I think that being in science is the most incredible experience to have, and I now spend quite a lot of my time trying to help the younger people in science to enjoy it and not to feel that they are part of some gigantic machine, which a lot of people feel today.