by Matthew Cobb
Monday was my birthday, but Tuesday was the birthday of the idea of a ‘genetic code’. The first clear suggestion that genes contain a ‘code’ was made by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger on 5 February 1943, in Dublin. This was one of his key contributions to biology, which he made in a series of three public lectures that were published in 1944 under the title What Is Life?
As I have explained in a post at The Guardian:
At a time when it was thought that proteins, not DNA, were the hereditary material, Schrödinger argued the genetic material had to have a non-repetitive molecular structure. He claimed that this structure flowed from the fact that the hereditary molecule must contain a “code-script” that determined “the entire pattern of the individual’s future development and of its functioning in the mature state”.
This was the first clear suggestion that genes contained some kind of “code”, although Schrödinger’s meaning was apparently not exactly the same as ours – he did not suggest there was a correspondence between each part of the “code-script” and precise biochemical reactions.
Historians and scientists have argued over the influence of Schrödinger’s lectures and the book that followed, but there can be no doubt that some of the key figures of 20th century science – James Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins and others – were inspired to turn to biology by the general thrust of Schrödinger’s work.
Ten years after Schrödinger’s brilliant insight, Watson and Crick’s second 1953 article on the structure of DNA provided the world with the key to the secret of life, casually employing the new concepts that had been created by cybernetics and propelling biology into the modern age with the words: “it therefore seems likely that the precise sequence of the bases is the code which carries the genetical information.”
These prophetic words – shorn of the conditional opening phrase – are uttered in biology classes all over the world, every single day.
Head on over to The Guardian to learn more. There are no jokes about cats in the article, I’m afraid, although there are plenty in the comments…