The Coil of Life: The Story of the Great Discoveries in the Life Sciences

By Ruth Moore | Go to book overview

XIII
THE VERITABLE STUFF OF LIFE

THOUGH MOST of the years while the three M's-- Mendel, Morgan, and Muller--were discovering the amazing hereditary feats of the chromosomes, bottles of a gummy white powder sat on the shelves of many laboratories.

It was in fact the veritable stuff of those chromosomes. It might have been labeled, if anyone had recognized its full significance and had been endowed with the uninhibited imagination of a medievalist rather than the steely restraint of a scientist, the elixir of life, the quintessence of life. In actuality it bore the label "Nucleic Acid," and the bottles gathered dust.

Mendel had barely finished his work and taken on the duties of the Abbot of Brünn when the white powder was discovered--in 1869.

A young Swiss biochemist, Friedrich Miescher, was completing his studies in the Strasbourg laboratories of one of the leading scientists of the day, Felix Hoppe-Seyler. Miescher was assigned to make some chemical analyses of the cell, and he was having difficulty in breaking down its stubborn entity. It occurred to him that pepsin, the stomach enzyme that digests the proteins we eat, might act upon the proteins in the cell.

Miescher mixed a solution and dropped in some pus cells. His idea worked beautifully. The pepsin quickly broke down the cells and disintegrated their proteins. Nevertheless, quite a bit of material was left. Miescher, who even as a student made a practice of examining all the materials with which he was working, decided to have a look at it. He put a bit of the cellular residue under his microscope. A surprising sight met

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