Science blog

10 March 2017

Francis Crick - our new neighbour


Francis Crick image by Marc Lieberman via Wikimedia Commons

When the Francis Crick Institute opened in 2016 it became, with 1500 scientists, the largest biomedical research laboratory in Europe. Our new neighbour is built on the remaining acres of the old Midland railway goods yard at St Pancras that had been left unoccupied by the British Library. In 2007 this site was chosen as the central London site for a new institute combining the MRC’s National Institute for Medical Research, Mill Hill and the London laboratories of Cancer Research UK.

The new institute celebrates the name of one of the outstanding scientists of the 20th century. If you enter the public exhibition hall of the Francis Crick Institute you will see a remarkable 3D portrait, showing Crick in full flow at a lectern, holding one of his classic papers. Although well known for his co-discovery of the DNA double helix with James Watson, Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, Crick’s many other major contributions to biology are less widely known.

His background was in physics and engineering - in the war he devised “smart” mines that were used successfully against U boat bases - and so he brought a rigorous insight to biological problems which until the 1950s had been largely an empirical discipline. Watson and Crick’s classic 1953 paper on DNA and the double helix concluded with a leap of imagination in understanding DNA’s function with the famous line "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material." As Peter Medawar wrote :

“If the solution had come out piecemeal instead of in a blaze of understanding, then it still would have been a great episode in biological history.’ But it would not have been the dazzling achievement that, in fact, it was.”

Five years later in a second blaze of understanding  Crick set out a model for modern biology that has driven research ever since. The quotation below from his 1958 paper On protein synthesis gives a flavour of how Crick cut through a mass of confusing evidence and introduced the concept of information to biology.

“My own thinking (with that of many of my colleagues) is based on two general principles, which I call the Sequence Hypothesis, (…it assumes that the specificity of a piece if nucleic acid is expressed solely by the sequence of its bases, and that this sequence is a simple code of the amino acid of a particular protein) and the Central Dogma (…once “information” has passed into protein it cannot get out again). The direct evidence for both of them is negligible, but I have found them to be of great help in getting to grips with these very complex problems. I present them here in the hope that others can make similar use of them. Their speculative nature is emphasized by their names. It is an instructive exercise to attempt to build a useful theory without using them. One generally ends in the wilderness.”

And in a few more lines Crick went on to predict from basic principles the next link in the mechanism of protein synthesis – the “adapter” molecule or transfer RNA. This extraordinary paper is one of the greatest achievements in theoretical biology but it is also notable for his collegiate spirit, giving others the tools to think about interesting problems. Crick followed this triumph with a leading  role in unravelling the genetic code but by the mid-1960s the science of molecular biology had matured, moving from its classical phase to its baroque period, and Crick was ready to move on to new challenges.  Pausing briefly to look at the fundamental problem of development - how different genes are expressed in different patterns - he migrated from Cambridge to the Salk Institute in California to take up the study of the brain. His interest as he explained later in a BBC interview with Lewis Wolpert  went back to the start of his career in biology in the 1940’s

“The problem was what did I like?..... I decided that the gossip test is a good one, that what you are really interested in is what you gossip about. I looked at what I was gossiping to people about in science and it boiled down to two areas. One was the border line between the living and the non-living, and the other was the way the human brain worked”

His ambition was to demonstrate the physical basis of consciousness and he thought that the easiest way to approach this problem was to study vision as he explains  in his book The astonishing hypothesis. He continued to struggle with the problem of consciousness until 2004, finishing his final paper just three hours before his death from cancer.

Crick’s last days have a remarkable resonance with those of Charles Darwin. For Darwin’s last paper  On the dispersal of freshwater bivalves, written during his final debilitating  illness and published after his death, came about in response to a communication from the Leicestershire naturalist, Walter Crick, none other than Francis Crick’s grandfather.

Read more about Francis Crick here …. and listen to Francis Crick talking

Richard Wakeford, Science Reference Specialist