Life’s Greatest Secret – a thrilling account of the DNA revolution

Robin McKie in The Guardian:

CrickIn June 1966, the British Nobel laureate Francis Crick helped to organise a meeting of the world’s leading geneticists at Cold Spring Harbour near New York. It was to be a triumphant event. For the previous decade and a half, biologists had been struggling to unravel the genetic code, the biological cipher that determines how genes are passed on to future generations and which controls the construction of proteins in our bodies. This effort had begun in 1953 when Crick and his colleague James Watson showed that DNA was the critical constituent of our genes and revealed that it had a double helical structure. Since then, scientists had been racing to find out how that double helix controlled the manufacture of amino acids from which our bodies’ proteins are constructed. At Cold Spring Harbour, they were ready to announce their success and revealed the detailed process by which units of DNA control the manufacture of particular amino acids via intermediary entities known as ribosomes. This is the genetic code.

It was a historic occasion, as Crick acknowledged. Biologists had achieved an understanding of life’s processes at a molecular level for the first time, a point reinforced by Matthew Cobb in this meticulous, carefully assembled and thoroughly enjoyable history of modern molecular biology. “Cracking the code was a leap forward in humanity’s understanding of the natural world… akin to the discoveries of Galileo and Einstein in physics, or the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species,” he states. Yet it had not been an easy business, as Cobb also makes clear. The effort involved hundreds of scientists and was similar, in scale, to the Apollo moon landings or the Manhattan project – though with one key difference. There was no leadership, no overseeing council, and no directed funding from governments pursuing military or political goals.

More here.