A History Of DNA, Part I: Before the Discovery

Proteins are the biological molecules that make things work in living systems. We could say that they are involved in every process in the cell. They are controllers of biochemical reactions, structural elements that hold parts of the cell together, motors that make things move, signals, and so forth. The function of a protein depends almost entirely on its shape. Its three dimensional shape determines its physical and chemical properties, which in turn allow the protein to serve its unique function. The three dimensional shape of a protein, in turn, depends almost entirely on the linear sequence of the building blocks of life, the amino-acids.

There are 20 kinds of amino-acids. An average protein might have a few hundred amino-acids. So, proteins are the work horses, and their function is determined by its chemical sequence of amino-acids. Now, how do we get a protein of a particular sequence built? To answer this question we need to address two things. First, what is the blueprint that is used to build proteins? Second, how does that molecule actually work?

It is the first question that I want to talk about today. Before we can understand how the code works, we need to understand what the code is made of. I think that we all know the answer today: DNA. Interestingly, though, that was one of the questions that defined molecular biology in the 20th century.

At the very beginning of the 20th century, it was already known to scientist that the code was in genes, which in turn resided in chromosomes. This was known from the work of early cell biologists, Walter Sutton and Theodor Boveri being the most important, who discovered that the particular movement of chromosomes that occurs when cells divide corresponded to patterns of transmission of traits between parents and their offspring. These patters of trait transmission had actually been discovered earlier by the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel.

Cell biologists knew about Mendel’s work, how chromosomes moved, and they developed what now is called the chromosomal theory of inheritance. This theory basically says that the way chromosomes move is somehow related to the way that inheritance occurs, therefore, chromosomes are related to information in cells.

We today know that chromosomes are made of DNA, but how that became a known fact? We must begin by going back to the earlier part of the 20th century, to the work of an English physician named Frederick Griffith. This experiment that I am about to describe really provided the first insight into the chemical nature of genetic information.

Griffith’s Experiment

Griffith was a physician and he wasn’t interested in the molecular basis of inheritance. Instead, he was working on a much more applied problem. He was studying Streptococcus pneumoniae, which is a bacteria that causes pneumonia in humans. What Griffith wanted to do was to develop a vaccine against this particular organism, because the pneumonia caused by it often proved fatal. This was before the advent of antibiotics, of course.

As often it is the case for disease-causing bacteria, there were different strains that varied in their virulence. They varied in how likely they were to induce the disease and cause death. Griffith was working with two strains of Streptococcus pneumoniae. He was working with what we call the S strain on the one hand. This was a very virulent strain. It is called S because if you grow it in a colony, it actually looks kind of shiny and smooth. He had another strain, which he called the R strain, which was non-virulent. If you got the R strain, you might be a little sick but you wouldn’t die. It is called the R strain because the bacteria look kind of rough on the surface.

The important thing to note is that these strains did breed true. In other words, as they reproduced, their offspring had the same properties. S strain bacteria gave rise to more S strain bacteria and so on. It is inferred from that, that the difference between the S strain and the R strain bacteria somehow must be genetically encoded.

What did Griffith do? Griffith was using the approach pioneered by Louis Pasteur, which was to take the organism that you want to develop a vaccine for and kill it. This organism could no longer harm you, but nonetheless, would perhaps induce some sort of immune response if injected in a subject. The idea was to take S strain bacteria, kill them by heating them up, and then take these dead S strain bacteria and inject them into a laboratory mouse, and see if that mouse develops immunity. The mouse wouldn’t die if you injected dead S strain bacteria, but the parts of the bacteria that are injected might nonetheless induce an immune response.

This is a great idea, but it didn’t work. It often doesn’t work. There wasn’t enough left of these dead S strain bacteria to induce an immune response. If you injected these in a mouse, and then injected live S strain bacteria, the mouse would die.

Another common technique that was used then and now to develop vaccines was to eject not only the dead offending organism, but some related organism that was less virulent. In this case, we are talking about the R strain bacteria. The idea is that the live R strain bacteria, because they are alive, would induce the organism to develop a full immune response. That development of a full immune response would somehow pickup some immunity to the dead S strain bacteria. This is a common technique and it often works.

What Griffith did then? He killed some S strain bacteria and injected them in with living R strain bacteria. What he hoped would happen is that the mouse would develop immunity to the S strain, but what happened instead was unexpected, and unfortunate for the mouse, the mouse died. This is a surprising result. What’s being injected into the mouse are dead S strain bacteria, that wouldn’t kill the mouse; and live R strain bacteria, that wouldn’t kill the mouse neither. Nothing was injected in the mouse that should kill it, and yet the mouse died.

What Griffith found out when he dissected the poor dead mouse was that inside it were living S strain bacteria. He injected dead S strain, and when he took the mouse apart, he found living S strain. What Griffith concluded from this work, and correctly, was that somehow the living R strain bacteria had taken up something from the dead S strain bacteria, and incorporated it into them. That somehow transformed the R strain into the S strain.

Griffith later showed that he didn’t need the mouse. You can do this in a beaker. If you put dead S strain and live R strain bacteria in a beaker, some of the live R strain would become transformed into live S strain.

What’s really interesting from this experiment, in my opinion, is that the material that they incorporated must somehow be genetic material. It must somehow have information in it. How else could the R strain bacteria now become virulent like an S strain bacteria? The difference between S and R had to have something to do with genetically transmitted information. What Griffith did was he left it there. It was only 1929 when he was doing this work. He said that he had discovered what he called the transforming principle.

Our interest in this, and of scientist interested in genetics, is that somehow this transforming stuff must involve genetic material. In my next post we will see how this experiment helped in discovering that DNA is the molecule that holds genetic material in living things.

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