Revealing DNA as the molecule of life

How was DNA discovered to be the carrier of genetic information? Read on to find out...

Scientists initially thought that DNA was too simple a molecule to be able to carry genetic information.

For the first half of the 20th century, scientists continued to believe that the proteins in chromosomes formed the basis of the genetic information that was passed from generation to generation. To them, DNA was too simple a molecule to be able to carry that sort of complex information and proteins showed much more variation.

However, a series of experiments conducted by various groups of scientists started to reveal that in fact it was DNA, not protein, that carries the genetic information.

Avery-Macleod-McCarty experiment

In 1944, Oswald Avery, Colin MacLeod and Maclyn McCarty helped demonstrate the role of DNA as the carrier of genetic information by working with the bacterium that causes pneumonia, Streptococcus pneumoniae.

Frederick Griffith identified the ‘transforming principle’.

However, their work was given a head start by a British bacteriologist called Frederick Griffith, who identified something called the ‘transforming principle’.

Frederick studied two strains of the Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria. One, called the S strain, had smooth walls and was fatal when injected into mice. The second strain, R, had rough walls and was not fatal when injected into mice.  The S strain was smooth due to a coat made out of sugars that helped protect it from the mouse immune system. The rough R bacteria were rough because it did not have a sugar coat, and so was not protected from the mouse immune system.

Frederick carried out a series of experiments to investigate the strains further.

  1. First he killed S bacteria with heat and injected them into the mice. The mice survived.
  2. He then injected heat-killed S bacteria along with living R bacteria. The mice died.
  3. After studying the blood of these mice he was surprised to find living S bacteria in it, somehow the rough R bacteria had transformed into smooth S bacteria.
  4. He then came to the conclusion that there was a ‘transforming principle’ responsible for this.

But what exactly was it? Was it the proteins in the bacteria, the sugar coat on the S bacteria, the immune system of the mouse or the nucleic acids RNA and DNA?

Enter Oswald Avery and his colleagues. Working in test tubes, they used detergent to break open the heat-killed S cells to separate out the different components: 

Avery experiment - separation

They then destroyed the components one by one to identify which component was the ‘transforming principle’. The team published their results in 1944. 

  1. First they combined the heat-killed S bacteria with an enzyme that broke down the smooth sugar coat. They then mixed the sugar-coatless S bacteria with the R bacteria and found that the R bacteria still transformed into S bacteria. So, the ‘transforming principle’ was not in the sugar coat.
  2. Next they added protein-digesting enzymes to destroy all of the protein in the bacteria, and yet again when mixed with R bacteria, the R transformed into S.  So the ‘transforming principle’ clearly wasn’t a protein either.
  3. Next they isolated the nucleic acids, DNA and RNA, using alcohol.They then destroyed the RNA using the RNase enzyme, leaving just the DNA behind. They mixed it with the R bacteria, and transformation from R to S still occurred. So, it wasn’t RNA.
  4. Finally, they destroyed the DNA in the solution using DNase, mixed it with the R bacteria, and no transformation occurred, the R bacteria remained rough. So, the ‘transforming principle’ must be DNA! 
Avery experiment - process

Image credit: Genome Research Limited

The Hershey-Chase experiments

The T2 virus infects the bacterium Escherichia coli. The only way it can replicate is by infecting a cell.

In 1952, experiments by Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase further supported the findings from the work of Avery, Macleod and McCarty. Hershey and Chase used a virus called T2 to investigate if the genetic information was passed on via DNA or proteins. Although T2 is made up of only a shred of DNA and a scrap of protein, the virus can hijack bacterial cells to make more copies of itself. Scientists knew that the instructions for making new viruses must therefore have been carried in the DNA or protein, but they didn't know which.

When Hershey and Chase added a radioactive label to the DNA of the original T2 virus, they found that the viruses produced were also radioactive. However, when they repeated the experiment labelling the protein rather than the DNA of the original virus, they found that the viruses produced were not radioactive.

Hershey and Chase concluded that DNA carried the instructions to make new viruses, which was passed on to subsequent generations. 

Hershey-Chase experiment

Image credit: Genome Research Limited

Chargaff and his ‘rules’

Erwin Chargaff helped pave the way to understanding the three-dimensional structure of the DNA molecule.

The results of experiments by an Austrian scientist Erwin Chargaff helped pave the way to understanding the three-dimensional structure of the DNA molecule.

Erwin set out to investigate if there were any key differences between the DNA of different species. Following this he came to two conclusions, which became known as ‘Chargaff’s rules’:

  1. In DNA, regardless of which organism it comes from, the amount of adenine (A) is usually the same as the amount of thymine (T), and the amount of guanine (G) is usually the same as the amount of cytosine (C).
  2. The composition of DNA varies between different species such that the amount of each base is different. This diversity in the composition of DNA made it a much more credible candidate for the genetic material than protein.

Erwin Chargaff’s rules were a crucial step in understanding the structure of DNA. In 1952, he met with James Watson and Francis Crick in Cambridge and discussed his findings with them. Although not the most cordial of encounters, Chargaff’s rules did help James and Francis to explain the three-dimensional structure of the DNA. 

Erwin Chargaff
Image credit: Columbia University Medical Center


This page was last updated on 2016-06-13