Chronology of a Scientific Safari

Today, April 16th, 2003 offers a remarkable perspective on three crossroads joining what some consider our current ‘biological age’ with what follows the ‘nuclear age’ and the ‘space age’. The year 2003 represents 3 landmark anniversaries: the first atomic theory, the first powered flight, the first elucidation of the DNA double-helix.

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The biomolecule, DNA, that twists throughout the cell nucleus

Today further marks Wilbur Wright’s birthday, and the cancer-stricken death of one of the key researchers who first foresaw the DNA double helix, Rosalind Franklin.

Wright became a celebrity who dazzled millions as the "Man-Bird" by circling the Statue of Liberty at eye-level.

Franklin remained in obscurity despite finding the key sugar and phosphate bonds that make DNA such a dynamic and twisting molecule for storing life’s code.

Today also marks the first ever enablement of patents on a mammal, the Harvard mouse called ‘onco-mouse’ because it was susceptible to the onset of breast cancer and could be used to test anti-cancer drugs.

But this month’s publication of the completely filled-in and polished sequences for the human genome provides a measure of the breathtaking progress in these three fields: atom to biology to space.

Logging three billion base units that comprise the human genome began just half a century ago as only the four that uniquely give DNA its character of coding.

Wilbur’s brother, Orville, lived on as a founding member of the aeronautical society that eventually became NASA, and saw in his lifetime the speed of air travel rocket from zero to a thousand miles per hour.

Two Hundred Years: The Atomic Age

2003 also represents the two hundredth anniversary of what started the nuclear age, when John Dalton first proposed the theory of the atom. His work on the fundamental building block as the ‘atom’ enabled determination of atomic weights and the simple ratios that they combine uniquely into (like carbon dioxide being in the ratio of one carbon to two oxygens). These atoms were always recoverable from more complex molecules, by applying heat, electricity, etc.

As he stated using an astronomical analogy, the creation or destruction of smaller particles was not considered possible until the first nuclear reactions: "We might as well attempt to introduce a new planet into the solar system, or to annihilate one already in existence, as to create or destroy a particle of hydrogen. All the changes we can produce, consist in separating particles that are in a state of cohesion or combination, and joining those that were previously at a distance."

One Hundred Years: The Early Space Age

This year is also the century mark of what ultimately started the space age , when in 1903 Wilbur and Orville Wright first achieved manned flight on the dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. April 16th is Wilbur Wright’s birthday (1867). The brothers tested over two hundred different wings and airfoil sections in different combinations to improve the performance of their gliders.

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Is the image astronomical or biological, as small as 100 microns or as large as 100′s of millions of miles? Answer: Astronomical, Hubble Space Telescope Image of Planetary Nebula IC 419

Their first powered aircraft under pilot control flew four times in 1903, covering a distance of 850 feet (or about one football field) and staying aloft just shy of a minute (59 seconds). Their engine (12 horsepower) would be just double what a modern lawnmower might require. On the last flight, hard contact with the ground broke the front elevator support and ended the season’s flying.

Wilbur died suddenly at age 45 of typhoid fever, but electrified both Europe and America during his day, particularly circling around the Statue of Liberty before one million New Yorkers, then flying up the Hudson River to Grant’s Tomb. He was called the "Man-Bird", when he set speed records at Le Mans, France. Orville went on to the age of 76, where he was a founding member of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which became NASA in 1958, when space was added both to the acronym and the collective imagination.

Fifty Years: The Biological Age

The nascent field of astrobiology, or the search for life elsewhere in the universe, takes note of the third revolution: the remarkable progress being made in life sciences.

As the roadmap for this new field states: "A golden age has begun for the life sciences, an age in which science and technology will benefit enormously from a fundamental understanding of the full potential of living systems…This is an agenda for inspiring the next generation of planetary explorers and stewards to sustain the NASA vision and mission."

The event that triggered much of the current ‘biological age’ happened fifty years ago, when Francis Crick and James Watson first proposed a double helical structure for the code-storage molecule of life: DNA.

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Left, the crystallographic shadow from DNA, right Rosalind Franklin

April 16 (1958) memorializes another event forty-five years ago today: the untimely death (from cancer) of a key competitor with Watson and Crick, Rosalind Franklin , who made important strides on the DNA X-ray crystallography needed for the helical model. After complicated analysis, she discovered (and was the first to state) that the sugar-phosphate backbone of DNA lies on the outside of the molecule. She also elucidated the basic helical structure of the molecule.

Franklin was not bitter about the success of her Cambridge competitors, but pleased, and set out to publish a corroborating report of the Watson-Crick model. As Watson and Crick closed their publication at the time: "We have also been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished experimental results and ideas of … Dr R.E. Franklin …"

Patenting the Sun

The Watson-Crick model enterred the practical and patentable on this day as well, April 16, 1987, when the United States Patent Office first enabled intellectual property on what previously was considered unpatentable: a lifeform. The laws of intellectual property from the eighteenth century held previously that according to the Product of Nature Doctrine, any naturally occurring material or law of nature is excluded from patent protection.

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Is the image astronomical or biological, as small as 100 microns or as large as 100′s of millions of miles? Answer: Biological, Chromosomes stained green; Mitochondria red; cytoskeleton blue.

Two Harvard professors – Philip Leder and Timothy A. Stewart – soon thereafter used genetic engineering to ‘design’ a mouse that was susceptible to breast cancer onset, and their ‘onco-mouse’ sold for fifty dollars each to test anti-cancer drugs.

Over 200 US patents in the ‘plant biotechnology’ category have now been granted, and yeasts dating back to Pasteur were granted patent protection in both the US and France. But the 1987 decision stated that ‘the PTO now considers non-naturally occurring, non-human, multicellular living organisms, including animals, to be patentable’. The Harvard patent was the first to refer to a non-human mammal.

In 1955, this week also brought on a scientific change to end the most feared disease of the first half of the century, polio. On April 12, 1955, the salk vaccine for polio was announced and completely eradicated the disease from the Western Hemisphere. Jonas Salk, when asked about its status at the time, proclaimed his famous astronomical analogy to journalist Edward R. Murrow: "There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?"

What’s Next

This week marked what can be held as the watershed event in this current biological age: the polished completion of the complete human genome, published in Nature magazine. "What we’ve got now is what we’ll have for all eternity," says Francis Collins, director of the US National Human Genome Research Institute and the head of the consortium of 16 international institutions that collaborated to sequence the code.

The three billion base units that code for human biology and heredity now have no substantial holes. As just one example among the 22 chromosomes that are multiplied trillions of time inside human cells, chromosome 20 seems involved in some of the oldest diseases: diabetes, leukaemia and eczema. The raw sequence information is freely published on the web.

The wide distribution of such science perhaps no better underscores what many regard as the fourth and most recent revolution, the makings of the information age.

Related Web Pages

Astrobiology Roadmap
Wright Brother Chronology
Human Genome Project
Genetics Book of Life
Defining Life
Life from Scratch?