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Genetics History: A Letter to Hollywood

written by: •edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 11/2/2009

Genetics history is just as dramatic, inspiring and exciting as any other era, endeavour or event in world history. Far from being a dry academic subject it has the power to shape the lives of every person on the planet. And the world needs to know more about it. Dear big time movie director...

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    Hello Hollywood,

    I have a few ideas for some major projects. I can’t promise you explosions and wild car chases, but I can deliver heroes, villains, scandal, and people wielding a power so great that it can alter history. I’m afraid I’m going to have to use the ‘S’ word - 'Science', but please indulge me for a few brief moments. Here’s the pitch.

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    Landmarks in the History of Genetics

    Francis Crick - Photo: Marc Lieberman - released under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 As brilliant minds challenge themselves and each other, they focus all their energies and passions into trying to understand how nature works at the molecular level. Genetics history has been littered with scandal, great controversy, and Eureka moments so outstanding that they forever alter our perception of nature and role within it. It was Crick and Watson’s landmark paper on the structure of DNA that lit the fuse on the explosive growth in genetics and biotechnology. Whilst they basked in the glory of their incredible achievement, one scientist, Rosalind Franklin, whose own work contributed to their paper, remained largely unrecognised. In 1962 Crick, Watson and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine. Franklin could not be cited as she had died in 1958 and the awards are not given posthumously.

    There were many other landmarks in the history of genetics before Crick and Watson, and many more will follow.

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    Historic Figures

    Some of the major players in genetics history are unknown outside scientific circles, yet their work reverberates continually through our lives. People like Erwin Chargaff, who worked out the complementary relationship between DNA base pairs, and Hans Spemann, the father of cloning. Despite their achievements they are not viewed by the public at large as great historical figures, but their endeavours have been just as majestic as those of celebrated people in other fields.

    Genetics, in fact all of science, is no different from any other aspect of human activity. There are challenges and struggles, the surpassing of insurmountable odds, disappointments, failures, petty jealousies, outstanding individuals and arrogant individuals. Then there are the mavericks, the people who risk their names and reputations by going out on a limb. These are the sort of ingredients that you expect to see in some of your blockbusters where the hero is a sports star, war veteran or politician.

    Science seems to be viewed as a separate entity, as if it somehow sits alone amongst all human endeavours. Perhaps it’s because these events happen inside a laboratory or the cloistered environments of the university campus, and not on the sports field, battle field or political arena? Maybe it's that which stops you from wanting to tell their stories?

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    Genetic Modifications

    Just examine for a moment the fields of genetic engineering, stem cell therapy and gene therapy. They all have the potential to save lives and rid humanity of the appalling consequences of disease. What can be more heroic? Sure, these are incredibly contentious fields, the pros and cons of genetic engineering are fiercely debated. To many this technology is an abhorrent abuse of nature. Yet despite the howls of protest the scientists continue with their work, convinced that they are pursuing noble causes. Nature doesn’t give up her secrets easily and genetics has a long history of scientists who have pushed their brains to the limits to gain new knowledge.

    They are heroic people and yes like all heroes they have flaws, they make mistakes and they are not always right - even if they think they are. Society at large needs to know more about these individuals, their work and what drives them. Mr. Spielberg, Mr. Lucas, are you still there?