Closer to Home
Column Editor: Donna Jacobs (Research Specialist, Transgenic Mouse Core Facility, MUSC,
Charleston, SC 29425) <[email protected]>
During the three or more years that I have been writing “Booklover,” I have received a couple of emails commenting on one thing or another. Recently, I received one that turned into a real gift. One of the librarians at the Medical University of South Carolina contacted me because the library was getting ready to “toss” four volumes of Nobel Lectures Physiology or Medicine. The volumes spanned the years from 1901-1970. Her question to me was: “Would I like to have them?” “Of course” was my reply. I walk by the entrance to the MUSC library at least once a day, so it was easy for me to stop in at the front desk and retrieve the four tomes. Physically heavy and weighty in subject matter, I was delighted to have them. The subject matter was closer to home. With more than thirty years in the research community, I was familiar with many of the names listed in the table of contents and have even had the privilege to attend lectures given by some of the laureates.
The Forward in the first three volumes is the same. Written and signed by Arne Tiselius, President of the Nobel Foundation, it explains that the foundation granted Elsevier Publishing Company of Amsterdam the right to publish the English translations of the Nobel Lectures from the five domains (Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and Peace) starting in1901 and continuing to 1962. In addition to the lectures, there is a brief description of the award-winning work, short biographies of each laureate, and presentation speeches. I perused all four volumes, and it was like a walk down memory lane recalling Biochemistry lectures in college or seminars attended at conferences or at MUSC. But the 1962 award is particularly close to home since I work in the molecular biology/genetic field. Today DNA is a household word, made so by paternity testing and CSI TV shows. The path to mainstream began in 1953 when James Watson and Francis Crick proposed the double-helical structure of the molecule.
Francis Harry Compton Crick, James Dewey Watson, and Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nuclear acids and its significance for information transfer in living materials.” Professor A. Engström, of the Staff of Professors of the Royal Caroline Institute, gave the presentation speech. He opened with a discussion of the definition of a caricature and led into the relevance of defining the three dimensional structure of deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA. “The discovery of the three-dimensional molecular structure of deoxyribonucleic acid — DNA — is of great importance because it outlines the possibilities for an understanding in its finest details of the molecular configuration, which dictates the general and individual properties of living matter.” Wilkins won for his X-ray crystallographic recordings of DNA which gave the first view of the molecule. Watson and Crick won for recognizing from these recordings how the molecule is able to take on its staircase structure — the staircase that leads to our heredity.
Dr. Wilkins’ lecture was entitled “The Molecular Configuration of Nucleic Acids” and was filled with a physicist’s enthusiasm for these fundamental molecules of biology.
Dr. Watson’s lecture was entitled “The Involvement of RNA in the Synthesis of Proteins.” He entertains with stories of meeting Francis, developing a kindred relationship around the subjects of DNA, RNA, and their structure and wanting to work on something interesting and not “something inert like collagen.” Once they defined the elegant structure of the DNA molecule they could begin to divine how DNA made RNA made protein.
Dr. Crick’s lecture was entitled “On the Genetic Code.” He used his lecture to “ask certain questions about the genetic code and ask how far we can now answer them.” Proteins are composed of twenty different amino acids. How is this made possible from a molecule that only contains four individual nucleic acids? Defining the composition and size of the codon, a term defined by Dr. Crick as the set of nucleic acids that code for an amino acid, was essential to understanding our genetic code. He ends his lecture with the hope that “all these points will be clarified in the near future, and that the genetic code will be completely established on a sound experimental basis within a few years.”
Fifty years later, the human genome has been completely sequenced and we only have more questions. Molecular biologists and geneticists continue to fill journals with experiments that solidly confirm the elegance of this genetic code.