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
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
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.
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