In the latest episode of Genetics Unzipped we’re unwinding history to uncover some of the less well-known stories behind the discovery of the structure and function of DNA.
Many geneticists will have read the book The Double Helix – a dramatic tale of how American geneticist James Watson and British molecular biologist Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA back in the early 1950s. Being written by Watson himself, it’s no surprise that he’s the hero of the story.
Big names like Watson and Crick take much of the glory for the discovery of the structure of DNA, while others like Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin and Ray Gosling are increasingly recognised for their contributions.
But there are plenty of others whose work also contributed to our understanding of the structure and function of DNA, such as Johannes Friedrich Miescher, Fred Griffith, Oswald Avery, Rudolf Signer and Elwyn Beighton.
There are so many more stories that deserve to be told, even around something as seemingly well-documented as DNA. Someone who’s spent plenty of time unearthing them is Gareth Williams, Professor Emeritus at the University of Bristol and author of Unravelling the Double Helix: The Lost Heroes of DNA.
“In fact, the story is much more complex than you would believe from simply reading The Double Helix,” he says.
One of the people who Williams feels deserves more credit is Oswald Avery, who carried out crucial experiments to show that DNA, rather than protein, is the substance that transmits hereditary information in cells.
“Avery, I think, is one of the characters I feel the most empathy with,” he says. “This was a very hardworking, fastidious man, slightly odd I have to say, but he was nominated for a Nobel prize over 40 times and he never made the cut.
“The reason for that is that he was up against people who were ‘protein supremacists’ – they believed that only proteins were clever enough to be stuff of genes and therefore they just torpedoed the notion that DNA could actually be it.”
Another relatively unknown story is the tale of PhD student Elwyn Beighton and his supervisor Bill Astbury, who captured an X-ray photograph of DNA that looked almost exactly the same as the iconic ‘Photograph 51’ taken by Rosalind Franklin and Ray Gosling, which proved that DNA was a double helix.
“The interesting thing about the big bold capital X that we would instantly identify as Photograph 51 is that a very similar picture was taken a year before,” Gareth Williams explains.
“It’s called B299 and it was taken by a PhD student in Leeds. His boss, a man called Bill Astbury, who’d made a reputation on x-ray diffraction pictures of various fibres, had been sent a sample of DNA. And he’d instructed the PhD student Elwyn Beighton to take a picture of it.
“He took it, and because the picture that came out was so bizarre, it was nothing like a normal fibre of any sort, he decided that it wasn’t worth pursuing. That photograph, which looks exactly like photograph 51 was never published, and it was never even presented at the meeting. So it’s as though it never happened.”
Get the full story by listening to the latest episode of GeneticsUnzipped.com
Genetics Unzipped is the podcast from the UK Genetics Society, presented by award-winning science communicator and biologist Kat Arney and produced by First Create the Media. Follow Kat on Twitter @Kat_Arney, Genetics Unzipped @geneticsunzip, and the Genetics Society at @GenSocUK