Beautiful Helix

DNA, Tomislav Alajbeg
DNA. © Tomislav Alajbeg, rgbstock.com

The young researcher Matt Meselson must have been very excited when he pulled a photograph showing a series of grey stripes out of his wallet and passed it round at breakfast on New Year’s day 1958. Most of us might have a limited understanding of what he was celebrating, but his work has since been hailed as ‘the most beautiful experiment in biology’.

Last week marked the 60th anniversary of the publication of Watson and Crick’s famous Nature paper describing the structure of DNA. The now iconic helix was a bold idea based on data from the biophysicist Rosalind Franklin, and kick-started a revolution in biology. From the 1960s onwards, molecular biologists, including Matt Meselson, have been unravelling the secrets of the genome.

As a student in genetics I was taught the key experiments that helped scientists to accept that DNA was the molecule of inheritance, understand its information-carrying properties, and figure out how that information is passed on. I’m glad we didn’t have to reproduce this work in the laboratory because it was highly technical, rather tedious, and often involved the use of radioactive chemicals. With my impressive track record of spilling liquids, I’m not sure I would have survived! The resulting data, however, are beautifully simple and satisfyingly visual.

Perhaps the fuzzy grey bands that Meselson pushed under his friends’ noses that day would not look beautiful or simple to most people. To a biologist, however, the clear and visible demonstration of the ‘semiconservative’ replication of DNA by Meselson and his co-worker Frank Stahl is beauty itself. Something that looked rather boring – a series of grey stripes representing DNA with different chemical labels – has changed the way we see ourselves in a fundamental way.

Learning about what goes on inside every cell of my body at such a high level of detail has expanded my view of God. The world is incalculably complex and interconnected. Using our minds and our hands we can understand some of that complexity. For some of us, that will involve doing science. Others create technology, or use it in their everyday lives. Still others interpret the world through the arts. Though we cannot create something from nothing like God did, we can use our creativity to understand and live well in the world he created. In doing so, as astronomer Johannes Kepler said, we are thinking God’s thoughts after him.

 

This article was originally published by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity as part of its ‘Connecting with Culture’ series, and is reposted here with permission.

3 thoughts on “Beautiful Helix

  1. Richard Hosking May 7, 2013 / 3:38 pm

    Hi Ruth,
    Super post – great reminder of the power of inexpensive, well-designed experiments! Thanks for the ‘Connecting with Culture’ links – the back story to the genetics revolution also highlights the profound influence of social context on scientific progress.

    Salvador Luria (1912-1991) shared the Nobel Prize for ground-breaking work on viral genetics, and also became James Watson’s and George Streisinger’s PhD supervisor.**

    Originally from Italy, Salvador escaped to France in 1938 to avoid Mussolini’s antisemitic laws which denied Jews academic fellowships.* However, following Hitler’s invasion in 1940, Luria was forced to move once more. In his autobiography he describes being ‘ineffectually strafed’ (twice!) by German warplanes as he fled Paris by train, and again on bicycle among the refugee columns. He finally obtained an emigration visa for America in Marseilles – in passing, he mentions the suicides of those unable to do so.*

    (The Fall of France is vividly portrayed in Irene Nemirovsky’s contemporary novel ‘Suite Francaise’, which became a bestseller when first published in France 62 years after the author had perished in Auschwitz.*)

    Nobel Laureate Francois Jacob (who died last month, aged 92) fought as a medic with the Free French, and was seriously wounded in Normandy after D-Day. Hand injuries prevented him from becoming a surgeon, but his subsequent research helped lay the foundation of modern genetics.*

    Matthew Meselson (born Denver, Colorado, 1930) is also Jewish.*

    References (*in order)
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salvador_Luria
    Franklin Stahl ‘George Streisinger’ Biographical Memoirs V.68. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 1995:
    http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=4990&page=353
    S.E.Luria ‘A Slot Machine, A Broken Test Tube’ (Harper & Row 1984) p. 21-22, 26-28
    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/09/books/review/09gray.html
    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/franois-jacob-geneticist-who-helped-discover-the-core-of-life-8598027.html
    Encyclopaedia Judaica 2nd Ed (2007) (Online)

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  2. Frank Stahl November 29, 2014 / 5:48 pm

    There is value is reading original literature. The “Meselson-Stahl” experiment involved no radioactivity.

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    • Ruth Bancewicz December 1, 2014 / 3:30 pm

      Absolutely – and the original papers were fascinating. Such beautiful work, and I feel privileged that you read my post, which is part of a longer piece of work (as yet unpublished). When I mentioned that these key experiments in founding the field of molecular biology ‘often involved the use of radioactive chemicals’, I was using the phrase in a more general sense, thinking of the use of tritium and other isotopes in other experiments – but obviously I wasn’t very clear. Thank you for pointing that out.

      For readers, the chemical label used in this experiment was a heavier but non-radioactive isotope of Nitrogen. The entire story is told in ‘Meselson, Stahl, and the Replication of DNA: A History of the Most Beautiful Experiment in Biology’, Frederic L. Holmes, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002). For those with access to journals, the original paper is at http://www.pnas.org/content/44/7/671.full.pdf+html

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