Sunday, March 30, 2008

What is DNA?

The work of many scientists paved the way for the exploration of DNA. Way back in 1868, almost a century before the Nobel Prize was awarded to Watson, Crick and Wilkins, a young Swiss physician named Friedrich Miescher, isolated something no one had ever seen before from the nuclei of cells. He called the compound "nuclein." This is today called nucleic acid, the "NA" in DNA (deoxyribo-nucleic-acid) and RNA (ribo-nucleic-acid).

Two years earlier, the Czech monk Gregor Mendel, had finished a series of experiments with peas. His observations turned out to be closely connected to the finding of nuclein. Mendel was able to show that certain traits in the peas, such as their shape or color, were inherited in different packages. These packages are what we now call genes.

For a long time the connection between nucleic acid and genes was not known. But in 1944 the American scientist Oswald Avery managed to transfer the ability to cause disease from one strain of bacteria to another. But not only that: the previously harmless bacteria could also pass the trait along to the next generation. What Avery had moved was nucleic acid. This proved that genes were made up of nucleic acid.

Francis Crick and James Watson, 1953. Photo: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives

 Maurice Wilkins.

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