This video is dedicated to the men and women who have unlocked the secrets of genetics through their tireless work. The history of our understanding of DNA is fascinating, and the focus of this video is to help you get familiar with some of the people who figured this stuff out.
One SMALL note: We classified Jaenisch as an american scientist, because he works from M.I.T. It’s worth noting he wasn’t born in the U.S., but we hardly had time to cover that detail in the video. In general, we looked where each scientist did their work, or made the most impact, or how they self identified.
“If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” – Bernard of Chartres
Malthus, English: 1798. Did some depressing math. The food security created by agriculture raised the birthrate. He proved that agriculture couldn’t keep up. He proved that even successful species could end up battling for limited resources.
Darwin, also English: 1831. He read Malthus before that famous trip to the Galapagos. By 1859 he’s finished writing On the Origin of Species. The idea of Evolution was actually around before Darwin was born. But his big discovery was that he was the one who realized that evolution isn’t something like a tree, that always grows toward some invisible perfect light, it’s a lottery where nature has so many different tickets it just can’t lose.
Mendel, he’s a Czech: 1866. Monk and scientist. Actually common at the time. He’s doing this just a few years after Darwin’s book. Using only pea plants, he figures out that living things have dominant and recessive traits. But no one knows the mechanism, so his work sits unused for about 40 years….
Miescher , Swiss. A few years later. 1869. To most it seemed unrelated. Miescher sees something in the nucleus of cells. He even guesses it could have something to do with heredity. We have two meters in each cell and we have ten thousand trillion cells, so clearly nature thinks it’s important if it gave us each about 20 million kilometers of it.
Boveri, German. 1888. He and some others (and there’s always others) look at chromosomes, which are bundles of DNA so-named because they absorb dye nicely, which means they can easily be seen under a microscope. Boveri suggests chromosomes are connected to Mendel’s ideas about heredity.
Morgan, American. 1904. Uses his famous fruit flies to track how chromosomes affect heredity. He proves the link between Mendel’s peas and what Miescher saw under his microscope. Chromosomes ares linked to heredity and dominant and recessive traits, but people are still having trouble believing it when he wins a Nobel Prize 30 years later.
Levene, Lithuanian. 1909 to about 1923. Figures out that DNA–this stuff that nature thinks is so important–is just four simple nucleotides; C, A, T and G. How can a four letter alphabet that only makes proteins write a story complex enough to explain heredity?
Chargaff, Hungarian. 1930’s and 40’s, figures out that A’s always link to T’s and C’s to G’s. It’s a critical discovery. He’s later upset that he gets left out of Watson, Crick and Wilkins’ Nobel Prize.
Avery, Canadian. 1944. Brilliantly proves that DNA and its genes–the portion that makes proteins–relates to inheritance when they intentionally make a bacteria infectious by inserting DNA from foreign bacteria. He’s considered the person most deserving person to not win a Nobel. In fact, what he did was so remarkable that many felt he deserved two.
Franklin. 1952. The first official woman in the bunch. Of course, she’s left off Watson, Crick and Wilkin’s Nobel prize too, but she’s actually the first person to get a got photo of DNA.
Watson, American, and Crick, British. 1953. They knew from Chargaff that the nucleotides paired off, but without Wilkin’s showing them Franklin’s photo of the double helix, they may have never beat everyone else to the solution.
Brenner, South African. 1960. Brenner figures out that gene DNA is transcribed into messenger RNA in a process called transcription. The translated mRNA transports the genetic information from the cell nucleus into the cytoplasm, where it guides the production of the proteins, which make our cell run.
Boyer and Cohen, Americans. 1972. Sweet potatoes prove that nature does it, but they’re the first ones to intentionally transfer a gene. It’s so unique it gets the bacteria to create foreign protein, proving the genetic engineering is possible.
Jaenisch, American. 1974. Proves it’s possible by to engineer a mammal, creating the first mouse. That incites a huge shift in medical research because now it’s possibly to do experiments on exactly the same mouse over and over. Very helpful.
Venter, American. 2000. He and his team map the entire human genome. Tech means many plants and animals genomes are also getting fully mapped. Diseases are discovered relating to mistakes in copying the code.
Doudna, American. 2012. The second woman in the bunch with maybe the most practical discovery in genetics. In 2015 she figures out CRISPR, a way to use nature itself to edit or patch genetic code. It’s so natural that if you use it to create a new food it isn’t even considered genetically modified because it comes about the same way that nature does it.
Which leaves us with today, where we have great hopes for not only wonderful new foods and medicines that are easier on our environment, but we can also expect to one day be able to cure genetic diseases. You can see why I think it’s wise to be a rational optimist. Humans have accomplished a lot in managing to feed a world that gets bigger every day. You can’t help but think that both Malthus and Darwin would be genuinely impressed with this progress.
If you would like a more detailed look at the history of DNA you can find our article here.