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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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