With the chemical composition of DNA sufficiently well established, the world of science appeared poised for a major shake-up in its understanding of heredity. Still, the road of discovery up until that time had been anything but a ‘walk in the park’. While important details concerning the components of DNA had been ironed out as early as 1909, several erroneous turns at the beginning of the twentieth century had thrown biologists ‘off piste’ into thinking that protein and not DNA lay at the heart of heredity.
In the 1940s the pioneering work of Erwin Chargaff brought heredity firmly back into its rightful place. Having shown unequivocally that DNA was made up of non-equal proportions of its constituent bases, Chargaff recognized that DNA might possess a language-style code that could act as the medium for inheritance. The intellectual journey that led James Watson to Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory in 1951 eventually finished of course with a stunning confirmation of Chargaff’s suspicions.
Key to both Watson’s and Crick’s triumphant entry into the DNA race was their uninhibited drive to ask questions even if that meant revealing their ignorance. While others feared tarnished reputations should they expose any gaping holes in their understanding of the matter at hand, Watson and Crick had little to lose in their rise from obscurity. The Watson-Crick duo took valiant stabs at the DNA structure problem using data that others, notably Rosalind Franklin and Linus Pauling, had amassed. Indeed history tells of the tensions that existed between these rivals although many considered Watson and Crick to be nothing more than laughable ‘know nothings’ who had no business being where they were.
Using little more than plastic and metal models Watson and Crick brought substance to the idea that a double helix with phosphate backbones running on the outside accorded best with the data. The ‘staircase structure’ that they ultimately arrived at was in all senses revolutionary as was the nine hundred word-long 1953 Nature paper they published just weeks later. Famously, Crick entered the Eagle pub just around the corner from the Cavendish laboratory to inform the masses that the ‘secret of life’ had at long last been found.
Meyer does a marvelous job in conveying the personal tensions that so characterized the DNA story. His extensive coverage of ‘turning point’ historical moments reveals an in-depth knowledge of the subject matter. Like few other scientific discoveries, that of the structure of DNA brought fundamental changes to our understanding of the chemistry of life since life itself could no longer be considered to be a mere product of matter and energy. As Meyer elaborates, information in the form of a DNA code had emerged as the critical player in defining the hereditary makeup of nature.