March 13, 2003 (Ira Pilgrim)

The Gene

Great discoveries and improvements invariably involve the cooperation of many minds. I may be given credit for having blazed the trail but when I look at the subsequent developments I feel the credit is due to others rather than to myself.

Alexander Graham Bell

It doesn't seem possible that 50 years have elapsed since the publication of Watson and Crick's revolutionary paper on the structure of the gene. I was a graduate student in zoology at the time.

Several years before Watson and Crick's discovery, I remember an Oriental man giving a seminar before the zoology department. He claimed to have actually seen the chromosome strands. He took a cylinder and two colored ribbons and wrapped them around to show the double helix. I doubt that anyone understood what he was talking about and probably no one now remembers either his work or his name. This wonderful observation is lost to history because no one, at the time, had the faintest idea what it meant.

When I was in my senior year at Berkeley, scientists were debating whether DNA could actually be the genetic material. I took a course in cytology (the study of the cell) from Richard Goldschmidt, who was then in his eighties. He was a student when, at the turn of the century, Gregor Mendel's work was rediscovered, 35 years after it had been published. I consider my contact with Goldschmidt to have been my only brush with greatness. He did enough fine science to have earned several Nobel Prizes, which he never got. He showed us the newly released German phase microscope movies of cells dividing. He shook his head and said that it took biologists (including himself) over 20 years to deduce, from looking at dead cells, what we were now seeing as it was happening, in the movie.

Watson and Crick's work was the culmination of what many scientists had been working on for a long time. First it was necessary to prove that DNA was the genetic material. Then Irwin Chargaff showed that in all DNA, the amount of guanine equaled the amount of cytocine and that the amount of adenine was the same as the amount of thymine. That was essential to the discovery of the genetic code that every high school student now knows about. Chargaff should have shared that Nobel prize with Watson, Wilkins and Crick.

Now that the basic code that tells the cell and the organism what to do is known, the burgeoning field of molecular biology is on its way. Much remains to be learned, but the direction and the methods are clear.

What important discoveries are yet to be made? To my mind the greatest breakthrough will come if some people discover how the brain remembers and how it learns. What the different parts of the brain do is now well established. So far as I know, no one understands how the brain remembers. I have pictures of things and events in my brain that are detailed enough so that, if I were an artist, I could paint them. I have things occurring in my brain that enable me to figure things out. Does the brain have a code like a computer, or is it something that is radically different? Is the way that it remembers words or ideas different from the way that it remembers images? I will never know; but perhaps my great grandchildren might.

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