15 April 2013
ByAppeared in BioNews 700
BBC Radio 4, Saturday 23 March 2013
Presented by Professor Lord Robert Winston
In April 1953, Francis Crick and James Watson won the race to find the structure of DNA, revealing to the world the famous double helix structure in what was arguably the greatest biological discovery since Darwin's theory of evolution.
To celebrate the 60-year anniversary of the publication of their research, Radio 4 produced DNA 60 Years On, in which scientist Robert Winston traces the story of DNA. From the race between Cambridge University and King's College London (KCL) to discover DNA's structure, to the complete mapping of the human genome and the first self-replicating synthetic cell, Winston explores the science, history and ethical implications of DNA discoveries.
He presents the programme using an archive of recordings. Interviews with Crick and Watson form the programme's backbone, but the recordings include colleagues such as Maurice Wilkins from KCL, who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with them, and other players in the DNA story.
Rosalind Franklin, the KCL biophysicist who took the famous X-ray diffraction image known as Photo 51, has her side of the story told by her younger brother Colin. She is often considered to be the victim of the DNA story - Wilkins shared Photo 51 with Crick and Watson without her knowledge, showing them that DNA was likely to have a helical structure. It was, according to Watson, 'like a bombshell' and in the programme Crick acknowledges her vital contribution, conceding they would not have found the solution without her data.
Winston presents the academic race in a suitably impartial tone using the words of others to recount the different sides of the story. Crick and Watson are not presented as geniuses who made their discovery before their peers thanks to greater intellect, but rather as energetic young scientists who, to use their own words, were 'lucky'. They were the right men, in the right place, at the right time.
All the same, coming after a couple of flawed solutions from themselves as well as others, their double helix structure revealed to the world how genetic material replicated and was immediately accepted by their rivals. It was a thing of beauty and provided the launch pad for an explosion of advances in molecular biology.
The programme does not go into much scientific detail. It does not explain how the double helix structure revealed the genetic replication process, nor does it elaborate much on the science of the advances that followed. If there is a criticism to be made it is that Winston does not explain how Crick and Watson's discovery enabled the scientific revolution that followed; but then that was never the goal of the programme.
But DNA 60 Years On does an excellent job of highlighting the transformation of DNA from an obscure molecule to a symbol of our identity and individuality and the role it has come to play in our lives – solving crimes, resolving paternity issues, and identifying long deceased monarchs.
Throughout, Winston (or his producer) prefers to use others to tell the story, with Watson himself considering the complex ethical questions that have come to accompany DNA and its role in society. The question of where to draw the line when it comes to DNA profiling, genetic testing of embryos, DNA databases and other controversial areas remains unanswered.
'Why does a calf look like its mother? For that matter, why do cows always produce calves, and not rabbits or camels?' Today, most BioNews readers will be able to answer this question, posed by Crick in a 50-year-old recording. Before his and Watson's work 60 years ago, no one could. It is an anniversary worth celebrating, and DNA 60 Years On is a refreshing way of hearing a famous story straight from the horses' mouths.