Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code

Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code

by Matt Ridley

Francis Crick, who died at the age of eighty-eight in 2004, will be bracketed with Galileo, Darwin, and Einstein as one of the great scientists of all time.

Between 1953 and 1966 he made and led a revolution in biology by discovering, quite literally, the secret of life: the digital cipher at the heart of heredity that distinguishes living from non-living things -- the genetic code.

His own discoveries -- though he always worked with one other partner and did much of his thinking in conversation -- include not only the double helix but the whole mechanism of protein synthesis, the three-letter nature of the code, and much of the code itself.Matt Ridley's biography traces Crick's life from middle-class mediocrity in the English Midlands, through a lackluster education and six years designing magnetic mines for the Royal Navy, to his leap into biology at the age of thirty-one.

  • Series: Eminent Lives
  • Language: English
  • Category: Science
  • Rating: 3.91
  • Pages: 224
  • Publish Date: June 13th 2006 by Eminent Lives
  • Isbn10: 006082333X
  • Isbn13: 9780060823337

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We learn of Crick's war work on mines, his early forarys into protein structures, the fateful partnership with Watson, his 'ringmaster' role in the later unravelling of the genetic code, his dalliance with embryology and his final years delving into neuroscience.

I was surprised in reading the account to get a detailed description of each of the steps to arriving at the structure of DNA ...

However, it was sort of interesting, sort of funny, like reading about a hip, clever grandpa who was very smart and was a playboy at the same time. This was a nice change of perspective from "The Double Helix" written by Watson. But what I think is overlooked in such arguments is the intrinsic beauty of the DNA double helix.

The physicist Wolfgang Pauli once wrote to a friend "please excuse me for sending a long letter, I didn't have the time to write a short one." Matt Ridley took the time, condensed Crick's life story while keeping clear both the science and the personality behind it--no mean task--and the result is inspiring and delightful. Crick shared with James Watson the 1962 Nobel prize for discovering the "double helix" structure of DNA, the long stringy molecule in which all genetic information is encoded, as a sequence of 4 different chemical units. Watson did not always treat her fairly in his book, and later writers debated whether her contribution to the discovery of DNA was properly recognized or not--but the fact remains, Rosalind Franklin was Crick's friend to the end. Watson and Crick convinced it by showing how the code was actually stored and duplicated, by the unwinding of a double spiral of identical chain molecules. But if that chain held the code for creating proteins essential for life, how were these encoded? First came the discovery of messenger RNA--a long molecule somewhat resembling DNA, which could copy the sequence of units on a section of DNA and then carry it to a special cell unit, which "read" it and produced protein molecules according to the code it was given. Proteins are chains of amino acids, nitrogen-based molecules of which life uses 20 varieties. Still, three was the correct answer: often the same amino acid could be encoded in more than one way, and some encodings served as boundary markers, starting or ending the manufacture of a protein chain.

Crick emerges as a man who depended on others to respond to and challenge his ideas, with the rare ability to at the right point synthesize those ideas is clearly written papers.

Although from a human perspective I don't always agree with his viewpoints, his work ethic and network creation should be a model for today's academic and scientific circles.

Crick didn't start making major discoveries until his thirties after a pretty mediocre young adulthood.