5 years ago

The Partnership no. 7

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Science in a nutshell

Science in a nutshell Science Product The structure of DNA, the Genetic Material The discovery of the structure of DNA is more interesting than you may expect. Manager Molecular Biology Gert-Jan de Boer gives an insight into one of the discoveries that have been of great importance for vegetable breeding companies. DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the genetic material contained in all living organisms except for a few viruses. It was first isolated in the nineteenth century by a Swiss chemist who called it ‘nuclein’. It was only during and shortly after the Second World War that the results of some scientists began to suggest that DNA could well be the material responsible for passing on genetic information from one generation to the next. Rosalind Franklin In the 1950s various scientists were making efforts to solve the mystery of the structure of DNA. That kind of work is hard enough today; in those days it was a lot more difficult. A female scientist who was involved in that research was Rosalind Franklin. She produced DNA crystals, which she photographed with X-rays, exposing her own body to the radiation in the process. She then tried to unravel the structure of the DNA in the photos. An Englishman called Watson and his American ‘partner in crime’ Francis Crick had modelled DNA in the form of a double helix. In one of Rosalind Franklin’s photos they saw proof of their model. And the rest is history. In 1962 they were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work together with Maurice Wilkins, the person who had shown Rosalind Franklin’s results to her rivals, Watson and Crick. Nobel Prize And what about Rosalind Franklin? Unfortunately for her, only people who are alive qualify for nomination for a Nobel Prize, and Rosalind Franklin died of cancer in 1958, at the age of 37. But you’d think that someone who had carried out such important experiments would have been nominated while she was still alive. After all, Watson and Crick published their work in the journal Nature in 1953, and that same journal also published Rosalind Franklin’s results! As the nomination records of the Nobel Prize committee are sealed for fifty years, it has only recently become apparent that Rosalind Franklin was never nominated. Even though we don’t know whether she would have succeeded in identifying the structure of DNA on the basis of her results alone, this is indisputably a great injustice. But we are talking about things that happened sixty years ago. In those days, most women were still to be found at the kitchen sink. But even then there were already female scientists who were making important discoveries, or had already done so. Another good example is Barbara McClintock, who speculated about the mechanisms of genetic change back in 1950 already. Fortunately, she did receive a Nobel Prize for her work, if only in 1983. What does all this mean for breeding companies? But what is so important about Watson and Crick’s discovery? Well, a dividing cell must distribute its DNA equally between its two daughter cells. Watson and Crick’s model showed that when the double DNA helix is unwound, each strand acts as a template for the production of the absent strand. This makes copying or replicating DNA a piece of cake! We still benefit from this discovery every day. For example in using and developing DNA tests. But what was probably even more important for, for instance, vegetable breeding companies was the possibility of combining the best genetic characteristics to arrive at good new varieties. And all this thanks to an all but forgotten Rosalind Franklin and a few boffins experimenting with DNA models. Gert-Jan de Boer is Manager Molecular Biology at Enza Zaden. He studied Plant Physiology at the University of Amsterdam and started working at Enza Zaden in 2005. The work of Gert-Jan and his colleagues in the bio-tech lab helps us to not only speed up the breeding process, but also to ensure it runs a lot more efficiently. Enza Zaden still breeds in the traditional matter, but it combines our knowledge and creativity with modern and highly advanced technologies. 30 | The Partnership The Partnership | 31

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