Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Making use of old samples

OK, so there's a huge global stockpile of preserved tissue that's been sitting around unused for decades. Surely all those specimens should have some value to the scientific research community? Enter Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, and Frances Crick. Quite suddenly, the world changed. For anyone who has bothered to read this far, I'm sure it is not necessary to belabor the enormity of the biotechnology revolution that began with Watson and Crick's collaboration and the famous educated guess that revealed to us the exquisite structure of the DNA molecule. The full ramifications of the half century of productive research that followed will be not truly be understood for generations to come, but if we survive, future societies will look back and wonder what it must have been like for us to actually be present, here at this time, witnessing the beginnings of a seismic change in our species, our culture and our understanding of ourselves and our origin. In subsequent posts, I'll ponder what the DNA-driven revolution in molecular and cellular biology might mean for the far older science of histology.

There's one additional DNA-trivia-tidbit-aside I will throw in here that may be of interest to some. In the mid 1980's I completed my undergraduate degree at King's College London. I was very, very lucky to meet and take some classes with Dr Maurice Wilkins who, along with Rosalind Franklin, produced x-ray data that was used by Watson and Crick to inform their guess at the structure of DNA. Dr Wilkins was friendly and approachable with boyish charm and sharp wit. He indulged my naive questions and I spent many hours talking with him about the nature and philosophy of science, the rapid progress of molecular biology and the scientific revolutions of the 20th century, as well as what it all might mean for humanity. At that time, old-school British academics like Maurice worked on a totally different time scale to the rest of us. Even though there were files on his desk dated 1963 (marked "urgent"), I got the sense that his mind was always racing centuries ahead. He seemed to simultaneously live in the past and the future, as if some sort of distortion field isolated him from the passage of normal time. His mind swirled with questions to be answered, and the fact that it might take humanity centuries to answer these questions never seemed to bother him. I was inspired. Maurice taught me that scientists need to have faith that others will follow in their footsteps. Just because a question seems complex and hard to answer, that's no reason not to get started working on it right away. For some, this might might entail spending an entire professional career inventing tools that may some day enable others to continue a journey that can never be completed in one scientist's lifetime. Science is a highly rationale problem-solving strategy, but like any journey into the unknown, it also involves a leap of faith. I was saddened to hear of Dr Wilkin's death in 2004. I have lots fond memories of him I can share if anyone is interested.

 Maurice Wilkins 1916 -2004

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