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Book Review: Unravelling the Double Helix - The lost heroes of DNA

19 August 2019
Appeared in BioNews 1011

Unravelling the Double Helix: The Lost Heroes of DNA

By Professor Gareth Williams

Published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson

ISBN-10: 147460935X, ISBN-13: 978-1474609357

Buy this book from Amazon UK

If you asked me to describe how DNA was discovered, I would probably begin by recounting how Francis Crick and James Watson successfully identified the three-dimensional structure of DNA at the University of Cambridge, in 1953, and end my explanation by discussing the role that Rosalind Franklin played in this momentous scientific breakthrough. However, this explanation isn't entirely satisfactory, it captures just a tiny fraction of the 'story of DNA' and fails to recognise the many scientific discoveries that preceded, and paved the way, for the work of Watson, Crick and Franklin. Thankfully, Gareth Williams, Professor of Medicine at the University of Bristol, has been able to rectify my rudimentary understanding of the historic origins of DNA through the publication of his new book, 'Unravelling the Double Helix: The Lost Heroes of DNA'.

In what can only be described as a labour of love, Professor Williams shines a light on the 85 years of DNA research that came before the publication of Watson and Crick's 1953 Nature paper and introduces the readers to 26 largely forgotten scientists, whose work helped to answer the question: what is the molecular basis of life?

The book starts in Tübingen, Germany, in 1868, where Friedrich Miescher, a Swiss biochemist, inadvertently discovers DNA whilst attempting to isolate new proteins from white blood cells. However, it takes another 76 years of research before scientists can confidently assert that DNA, in the form of chromatin, is responsible for the transmission of inherited information (and another 10 years before the double helix theory is published). Over the course of the book, Williams takes the readers on a journey across the world, recounting how these 26 'lost heroes' of DNA research slowly pieced together the jigsaw puzzle of life.

This journey is very much a rollercoaster ride. Williams successfully conveys the excitement, confusion and contention that surrounded this research and it makes me yearn to be back in a research laboratory. Biochemist Alfred Mirsky vehemently asserted that DNA was too simple to be the genetic material of life and Linus Pauling believed that DNA had a triple helix structure. Yet, even these erroneous theories paved the way for success.

My favourite sections of the book examine the work of Gregor Mendel, who elucidated the basic rules of inheritance using the garden pea, and the work of Thomas Hunt Morgan, who studied the inheritance of mutations in fruit flies.

I was surprised to learn that Mendel, a beloved character for many biology undergraduates, received harsh criticism for his plant hybridisation studies. Statisticians argued that Mendel's data was 'too perfect' and it wasn't until 2001 that a scientific tribunal formally rejected the claims that Mendel falsified his data. It was, therefore, a great joy to read how Morgan, a staunch opponent of Mendel's theory of inheritance, later discovered that fruit fly mutations were passed down from parent to offspring at the same ratio as the phenotypic traits of Mendel's pea plants. Not only did Morgan's research support Mendel's findings, it indicated that plants and animals shared the same mechanism of inheritance.

Williams also manages to capture the rather unsavoury side of research: the stealing of intellectual property, the attempts to discredit the work of rivals and the hoops that researchers were forced to jump through to get their data published. These darker elements of the story add a sense of drama to the book and it makes for some captivating reading. In a deviation to most books on DNA, this book stops shortly after the landmark publication of Crick and Watson's double helix DNA model, yet, given the aim and context of the book, this feels like a natural point at which to finish the story.

The book itself is a rather daunting 494 pages in length, however, Williams has an incredibly engaging writing style and I read the book with the same speed and enthusiasm that I would read a crime novel, inwardly squealing with frustration when opportunities to catch the killer (i.e. pin-down the elusive 'blueprint of life') were missed due to timing, geography or incomplete information. Williams manages to achieve a superb balance between imparting scientific information and examining the personal biographies of the selected researchers. This balance brings a lightness to the book and transforms what could easily be a very dry topic into a compelling story. Williams has also included several supporting resources within the book, such as diagrams, mini-biographies and a timeline, which help the reader follow the main narrative, making the book widely accessible and not limited to those with a background in genetics.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable and informative book that I would recommend to all individuals with an interest in biology and genetics, as well as, to anyone with a penchant for popular science literature. The fact that I have already added Professor Williams' previous books on smallpox and polio to my reading list can be taken as a very positive sign.

Buy Unravelling the Double Helix: The Lost Heroes of DNA from Amazon UK.

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