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Memories of the Double Helix – by Mark Hynd

Feb 21,2013 by Edulab

I remember reading the Double Helix by James Watson back in 1968 just as I was coming up to my A-levels.  The human elements in the story made it a very popular book and people looked at scientists in a slightly different light.  At the time I had just been round Hammersmith Teaching Hospital in DuCane Road (next to my school St Clement Danes) and was in awe at the science being done there.  I still recall the tour we did of the hospital research departments.  On one table was a home-made model of a mumps virus showing its RNA and protein components and having read the Double Helix I could take some satisfaction from making sense of its structure. Even the A-level Chemistry syllabus incorporated hydrogen bonding into its content although it did not extend to the base-pairing in the structure of DNA.  A more modest explanation of the dimerization of ethanoic acid in benzene sufficed.  That was 44 years ago and how things have changed!  Not only is DNA on every Biology syllabus but we have marvellous teaching aids to show its structure and to make us aware of the how it functions within the cell.  DNA and RNA models that were painstakingly constructed in the workshops of Hammersmith Teaching Hospital can now be purchased by every school in the land and will be used to teach our students how the genetic code is there in DNAs base-pair alphabet the genetic code.  As I now look through the Edulab catalogue I wonder if I should purchase a DNA model to have on my desk at home to remind me of those days in 1968 when scientists were only just beginning to unravel its secrets.  Of course you cannot find out these secrets simply by having models on your desk.  Jacob Bronowski (he of the Ascent of Man fame) once likened scientific methods and technology to the surgeons knife as scientists delved into the molecular world and beyond.  Gel electrophoresis is one of the surgical instruments used to look into DNA and its structure.

At Edulab using our gel electrophoresis kits we can look at amongst other things- DNA fingerprinting; the investigation of the inheritance of fatal genetic diseases and we look at how plasmid DNA can be used to transfer inherited characteristics from one organism to another.

All of this can be part of a students learning experience before they even get to University!  Sometimes I wish I was 44 years younger.