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

By Ruth Moore | Go to book overview

XVIII
FOUR = TWENTY = INFINITY

A YOUNG WOMAN who was very ill came into a large city clinic. The doctors soon diagnosed the illness from which she was suffering as sickle-cell anemia.

She had heard the dread words before, for several other members of her family had died of the disease. She could not know, though, how small was the cause of her illness or that it was one of the most striking of all proofs of DNA's complete, superprecise control and determination of proteins and of life as a whole.

A change in an almost inconceivably small point, a single nucleotide "step" in the DNA spiral staircase of one chromosome, had altered the hemoglobin or red pigment of her blood from round to sickle-shaped. For reasons that medicine has not yet completely fathomed, this change had turned health into illness. Life and death depended upon one "step" in the long DNA helix.

The reach of DNA was long, its consequences infinitely large.

The revolutionary discovery in the 1950's that DNA and RNA, and not the proteins, were the carriers of heredity and the ultimate shapers of human destiny meant that the proteins, in all their vast variety, must either directly or indirectly be formed by the nucleic acids. But how? At first science could only speculate. Even the relationships that scientists were certain must exist were difficult to demonstrate. And yet if the DNA molecule with its distinctive arrangement of "steps" controlled the formation of a particular protein, proof should be

-341-

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