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DNA (PBS 2013)

PBS-Logo1 · The Secret of Life

The dis­co­very of dou­ble-helix struc­tu­re of DNA is to sci­ence what Mona Lisa is to pain­ting. It has been cal­led the sin­gle big­gest dis­co­very of all times. But it was not just stumb­led upon—it was a race.

Spe­ci­fi­cal­ly, it was a race bet­ween two teams of young sci­en­tists working in Bri­tain. Rosa­lind Fran­k­lin and Mau­rice Wil­kins were try­ing to iden­ti­fy the struc­tu­re by stu­dy­ing X-ray dif­frac­tions of the DNA mole­cu­le. But Jim Wat­s­on and Fran­cis Crick stu­di­ed a litt­le bit of everything—including, to the cons­ter­na­ti­on of some, the work of their com­pe­ti­tors. A few have gone so far as to accu­se Wat­s­on of ste­aling Franklin’s X-ray work.

In any case, Was­ton and Crick’s inqui­si­ti­ve working style ulti­mate­ly allo­wed them to deter­mi­ne the DNA struc­tu­re first, in 1953—an achie­ve­ment that led to their Nobel Pri­ze in 1962. Mean­while, Fran­k­lin pas­sed away in 1958 from can­cer.

2 · Play­ing God

In 1973 two sci­en­tists under­took an expe­ri­ment which rocked the world. By trans­fer­ring DNA from one spe­ci­es to ano­t­her, Herb Boy­er and Stan Cohen beca­me the first Gene­tic Engi­neers. Their expe­rimrnt trig­gerd a wave of con­tro­ver­sy about the dan­gers of gene­tic manu­pu­la­ti­on, but it also gene­ra­ted a mul­ti bil­li­on dol­lar indus­try.

Bio­tech­no­lo­gy would soon trans­form the phar­maceuti­cal indus­try and gene­ti­cal­ly modi­fied food was to herald the big­gest revo­lu­ti­on in agri­cul­tu­re sin­ce the indus­tria­li­za­ti­on of far­ming. Yet the public was skep­ti­cal, and so were cer­tain sci­en­tists. Some fea­red that a can­cer-causing gene stit­ched into the DNA of a bac­te­ri­um might be acci­dent­al­ly absor­bed in the human gut, enab­ling can­cer to be pas­sed on like an infec­tious disea­se. Bio­lo­gists from all over the world were cal­led to a mee­ting in Cali­for­nia to draw up a strict set of safe­ty gui­de­li­nes.

When the panic sub­si­ded the sta­ge was set for a bio­tech­no­lo­gy bonan­za. A race began to pro­du­ce gene­ti­cal­ly engi­nee­red insu­lin. A coup­le of years later a young rese­ar­cher cal­led Rob Horsch, who worked for the che­mi­cal giant Mon­s­an­to, pro­du­ced the first gene­ti­cal­ly engi­nee­red plant. The bio­tech revo­lu­ti­ons had arri­ved.

3 · The Human Race

In the 1990s, the race to work out the struc­tu­re of DNA 50 years ago was eclip­sed by ano­t­her race: to cata­lo­gue all the genes in the human geno­me. The rival­ry beca­me so bit­ter that pre­si­dents and prime minis­ters had to inter­vene in an epic endea­vour that will take a deca­de to com­ple­te and cost bil­li­on of dol­lars.

The sto­ry begins in 1990, when the Human Geno­me Pro­ject was laun­ched to deci­pher the com­ple­te inst­ruc­tion manu­al of the human being. This epic endea­vour took over a deca­de to com­ple­te and cost bil­li­ons of dol­lars. Eight years after its launch, a rival pri­va­te bid was announ­ced in an attempt to shut the public pro­ject down. A per­so­nal feud erup­ted bet­ween Craig Ven­ter, who ran Celera’s pri­va­te­ly fun­ded Geno­me Pro­ject, and Sir John Suls­ton, who over­saw Britain’s sha­re of the public Human Geno­me Pro­ject. Craig Ven­ter belie­ved he could finish the Human Geno­me several years befo­re the public pro­ject.

The fighting beca­me so inten­se that Pre­si­dent Clin­ton step­ped in to try to unite the two sides. Clin­ton asked a go-bet­ween to sort out the two war­ring groups. Over piz­za and beer in a base­ment, the two sides agreed to a cea­se-fire. They would announ­ce their draft results—together—in a joint cele­bra­ti­on hosted by The White Hou­se in June 2000.

4 · Curing Can­cer

Bud Romi­ne was dia­gno­sed with incura­ble can­cer in 1994. He was given three years to live. In 1996 a news­pa­per arti­cle caught his eye.

The arti­cle descri­bed the work of a local doc­tor, Bri­an Dru­ker, who was tes­ting a new kind of can­cer drug. In 1997, mon­ths away from death, Bud Romi­ne beca­me the first pati­ent ever to take Glee­vec. Wit­hin 17 days, Bud had retur­ned to per­fect health. Inde­ed, the drug seems to cure ever­yo­ne with Bud’s disease—Chronic Mye­lo­id Leukemia—by fixing the DNA that cau­ses it. Today, the pro­s­pect of more drugs that work at the level of DNA is a real one. In 1990, Glee­vec was the only one in deve­lop­ment. The­re are cur­r­ent­ly hund­reds of drugs in deve­lop­ment that might work in the same revo­lu­tio­na­ry way on dif­fe­rent kinds of can­cer.

The final work for the DNA sci­en­tists is iden­ti­fy­ing all the dama­ged genes that cau­se can­cer. But with the Human Geno­me Pro­ject finis­hed, a sin­gle lab will be able to do this in just five years. Fif­ty years after Crick and Wat­s­on dis­co­ve­r­ed the dou­ble helix, the secret of life may final­ly be living up to its name.

5 · Pandora’s Box

Jim Wat­s­on was asked to give a tour of the future. He belie­ves that DNA sci­ence should be used to chan­ge the human race.

His views are both extra­or­di­na­ry and extre­me­ly con­tro­ver­si­al. Wat­s­on argues for a new kind of euge­nics – whe­re par­ents are allo­wed to choo­se the DNA of their child­ren – to make them healt­hi­er, more intel­li­gent, even bet­ter loo­king. His visi­on may be dis­agree­ab­le, yet it’s a natu­ral con­se­quence of the deca­des of sci­en­ti­fic explo­ra­ti­on laun­ched by his and Fran­cis Crick’s dis­co­very of the dou­ble helix. It’s worth con­s­i­de­ring what effect the advan­ce­ments in gene­tic sci­ence may have on our future.


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