Francis Crick, one of the duo who proved we are all digital beings, died today aged 88. Along with James Watson, Francis Crick discovered the double-helix structure of DNA. Before their pioneering research the method by which information was passed down from parent to child was completely unknown. Some thought it could have no physical structure, others that it would never be discovered by the human brain. The answer, as often happens, was remarkably simple. Different combinations of only four vitamins make us what we are. Four.
Adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine join up in the aforementioned double-helix in adenine-thymine and cytosine-guanine bonds. When duplication is needed, the helix unwinds and (although this is a simplification) one half journeys to a new cell. In the new host the necessary acids are floating around and they quickly join up with their complement acid, forming an identical copy. I don’t know about you, but I find that pretty beautiful.
Unique strands of DNA, it was discovered, produce unique proteins and it is via these proteins that DNA affects the body. Furthermore, if you take a length of these acids and transplant them into any organism in the world, exactly the same protein will be made. The protein may have a different effect due to differing chemistries in the host body, but the original protein will not change (if you want a more convincing argument for life only having evolved once, I don’t know of one.) This is the reason that ‘glowing’ animals have been so successfully created in recent times. The gene (strand of DNA) and associated protein(s) for ‘glowing’ achieve the same result in many different animals. It’s like every computer in the world using the exact same AMD processor. We are digital beings, written in quadrenary.
Watson and Crick’s work started a revolution in science. Their remarkably short original paper began with: “We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.” Something of an understatement. The discovery opened the door to new paths of scientific endeavour, and will probably, within our lifetimes, allow us all to grow replacement hearts or, more controversially, let you prevent your unborn child from suffering from genetic diseases. Today it affects our lives on a daily basis. Want to find the criminal who attacked / raped / robbed you? DNA is as conclusive as it gets. The entire biotechnology industry is based on that one, monumental, discovery.
I’m expecting Richard Dawkins (biologist and author of the only book I can honestly claim has changed my life – as well as the country’s no.1 intellectual, incidentally) to publish a tribute of some kind. If he does, I’ll point you towards it, as he writes somewhat better than I.
I don’t believe in lingering over deaths, but when a person’s legacy is so vast it does no harm to pay tribute. Professor Crick, as both an effect and a verb, you rocked.