Chargaff’s Rules

Erwin Chargaff, 1930.

Erwin Chargaff, 1930.

“We have created a mechanism that makes it practically impossible for a real genius to appear. In my own field the biochemist Fritz Lipmann or the much-maligned Linus Pauling were very talented people. But generally, geniuses everywhere seem to have died out by 1914. Today, most are mediocrities blown up by the winds of the time.”

-Erwin Chargaff, 1985.

Erwin Chargaff, (1905-2002) a biochemist born in Austria, became interested in DNA earlier than most. In the 1930s, while he was working with the bacteria Rickettsi, he became aware of nucleic acids, and decided to educate himself about them.

In 1944, after Oswald Avery published his paper detailing the transforming principle of the Pneumococcus bacteria, Chargaff decided to devote his laboratory almost entirely to the chemistry of nucleic acids. Experimenting with these delicate substances was not an easy task, but eventually a chromatographic technique was developed that would allow for the separation and analysis of the base rings in DNA. This work would later lead to the development of Chargaff’s Rules, the topic of today’s post.

The guanine-cytosine base pair.

The guanine-cytosine base pair.

DNA has two main structural components – a backbone made up of sugar and phosphate groups, and a series of bases found in the middle of the molecule. There are four different bases found in DNA: Adenine (A), Cytosine (C), Guanine (G), and Thymine (T). These four bases can be divided into two categories, pyrimidines and purines. The pyrimidine bases, Cytosine and Thymine, contain only one ring, while the purine bases, Guanine and Adenine, contain two rings. In the DNA structure, the bases pair complementarily, meaning that a purine base will bind with a pyrimidine base. More specifically, Adenine binds with Thymine and Cytosine binds with Guanine.

The adenine-thymine base pair.

The adenine-thymine base pair.

Although this information is now considered fundamental biology, it wasn’t fully understood until after Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA in 1953. However, Chargaff’s research in the late 1940s had suggested that the four bases paired in the manner described above.

When Chargaff first decided to devote his laboratory to nucleic acids, he allowed a postdoctoral student named Ernst Vischer to choose his research program from a list of suggested topics. Vischer decided to analyze the purines and pyrimidines in nucleic acids, and went to work developing the chromatographic technique so crucial to isolating the bases. Although his technique was rather crude, it did the trick and Vischer achieved great success. The results of the base analysis showed that the amounts of Adenine and Thymine were about equal, and also that the amounts of Guanine and Cytosine were about equal. Eventually, Chargaff came to the conclusion that in a single molecule of DNA, Guanine/Cytosine = Adenine/Thymine = 1. This concept would later become known as Chargaff’s Rules.

Chargaff’s Rules were officially announced in a lecture delivered in June of 1949 and were first published in May of 1950. However, Linus Pauling had heard about the ratios much earlier – straight from Chargaff in late 1947, while traveling to England for his six-month stay as a professor at Oxford University. Pauling, who considered the trip by ship across the Atlantic Ocean with his family to be a vacation, did not pay attention to what Chargaff told him.

Crellin Pauling, the youngest child of Linus and Ava Helen Pauling, mentioned the remarkable background to the incident in a speech given during a symposium to celebrate Pauling’s life that was held here at Oregon State University in 1995.

Crellin Pauling on “The DNA Story: A Missed Opportunity.”

[Click here to view the rest of Crellin’s talk]

Over time Chargaff mentioned his work to individuals beyond Pauling. In the spring of 1952, Chargaff met James Watson and Francis Crick.  A prickly character, it is clear that Chargaff didn’t think much of the duo. In his truly remarkable autobiography Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature, Chargaff calls Watson and Crick “a variety act” and further describes them as:

One 35 years old (Crick), with the looks of a fading racing tout. . .an incessant falsetto, with occasional nuggets gleaming in the turbid stream of prattle. The other (Watson), quite undeveloped. . .a grin, more sly than sheepish. . .a gawky young figure.

He further notes that:

I never met two men who knew so little and aspired to so much. They told me they wanted to construct a helix, a polynucleotide to rival Pauling’s helix. They talked so much about ‘pitch’ that I remember I wrote it down afterwards, ‘Two pitchmen in search of a helix.’

[More samples from Chargaff’s acid pen are available here]

Regardless of what he thought of them, Chargaff still mentioned his work to Watson and Crick. The information, although published almost two years earlier, seemed to be new to the pair.

Though Chargaff himself didn’t speculate much on his rules, and Pauling completely ignored them, they did prove to be extremely useful to Watson and Crick. With this new knowledge, the feedback they had received from Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, and data obtained through their own research, Watson and Crick were soon able to correctly deduce the structure of DNA.

For more information on DNA, please visit the Race for DNA website, or check out the other posts in the DNA series. For more information on Linus Pauling, visit the Linus Pauling Online portal.


The Watson and Crick Structure of DNA

Francis Crick and James Watson, walking along the the Backs, Cambridge, England. 1953.

Today, our series on models of DNA is concluded with a discussion of the correct structure determined by James Watson and Francis Crick. Although they made an unlikely pair, the two men succeeded where one of the era’s leading scientists – Linus Pauling – failed, and in the process they unraveled the secrets of what may be the most important molecule in human history.

In the fall of 1951, James Watson was studying microbial metabolism and nucleic acid biochemistry as a postdoctoral fellow in Europe. It didn’t take long for him to tire of these subjects and to begin looking for more inspiring research. He became interested in DNA upon seeing some x-ray photos developed by Maurice Wilkins. He then tried to talk his way into Wilkins’ lab at King’s College, but was denied and ended up studying protein x-ray diffraction in the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University. Here he was assigned space in an office to be shared with an older graduate student named Francis Crick, a crystallographer. At the time, Crick was studying under Max Perutz, and was also becoming bored with his research. Watson and Crick hit it off immediately and before long, Watson’s interest in DNA had worn off on Crick. Although neither of them were experts in structural chemistry, they decided to attempt to solve the structure of DNA. As Watson put it, their planned method of attack would be to “imitate Linus Pauling and beat him at his own game.”

The pair’s first attempt at the structure in the fall of 1951 was very quick, and also unsuccessful. Interestingly, however, it was quite similar to Linus Pauling and Robert Corey‘s own attempt about a year later. Watson and Crick came up with a three stranded helix, with the base rings located on the outside of the molecule and the phosphate groups found on the inside. This left them with the problem of fitting so many negatively charged phosphates into the core without the molecule blowing itself apart. In order to solve this problem, they turned to Pauling’s own The Nature of the Chemical Bond. They were looking for positive ions that would fit into the core of DNA, therefore canceling the negative charge. They found magnesium and calcium to be possibilities, but there was no significant evidence that these ions were in DNA. However, there was no evidence against it either, so they ran with the idea.

Watson and Crick assumed – as would Pauling in his later attempt – that the finer details would fall into place. Overjoyed at solving DNA so quickly, they invited Wilkins and his assistant, Rosalind Franklin, to have a look at their structure. Expecting praise, they were undoubtedly surprised when Franklin verbally destroyed their work. She told them that any positive ions found in the core would be surrounded by water, which would render them neutral and unable to cancel out the negative phosphate charges. She also noted that DNA soaks up a large amount of water, which indicates that the phosphate groups are on the outside of the molecule. All in all, Franklin had no positive feedback for Watson and Crick.  And she was, at it turned out, correct. After the visit, Watson and Crick attempted to persuade Wilkins and Franklin to collaborate with them on another attempt at the structure of DNA, but their offer was declined.

Diagram of the double-helix structure of DNA. August 1968.

When Sir William Lawrence Bragg, the head of the Cavendish laboratory, heard about Watson and Crick’s failure, he quickly sent them back to other projects. Almost a year passed with Watson and Crick accomplishing no significant work on DNA. Although they weren’t building models, DNA was still at the front of their minds and they were gathering information at every opportunity. In the fall of 1952, Peter Pauling, the second eldest of Linus and Ava Helen Pauling’s four children, arrived at Cambridge to work as a graduate student. Jerry Donohue, another colleague of Pauling’s from Caltech, also arrived at the same time and was assigned to share an office with Watson and Crick. As a result, Peter also fell in with the group. Therefore, as the quest for DNA progressed, Linus Pauling was provided with a general idea of Watson and Crick’s work with DNA through contact with Peter. However, the opposite also proved true.

When Pauling and Corey submitted their manuscript on the structure of DNA in the last few days of 1952, Peter passed on to Watson and Crick the news that his father had solved DNA. Although the two men were crestfallen by this information, they decided to soldier on with their own program of research, figuring that if they published something at the same time Pauling that did, they might at least be able to share some of the credit.

Around this time, the pair added an important piece of information that they had learned from Erwin Chargaff, a biochemist. He had told them that the four different base rings in DNA appeared to be found in pairs. That is, one base ring is found in the same relative amounts as another. This first correlation constitutes one pair, and the remaining two bases make up the other pair. Interestingly enough, Chargaff had also told Pauling this same thing in 1947. However, Pauling had found him to be annoying and, as a result, disregarded his tip. Chargaff’s information did, however, prove to be crucial for Watson and Crick, who were slowly piecing together the basics of the DNA structure.

When Watson and Crick finally received Pauling’s manuscript via Peter in early-February 1953, they were surprised – not to mention elated – to see a structure very similar to their own first attempt. Bragg, a long time competitor of Pauling’s, was so pleased to see Pauling’s unsatisfactory work that he allowed Watson and Crick to return to DNA full time. The pair wasted no time, and had soon spread the news about Pauling’s model to all of Cambridge. Watson even told Wilkins about the manuscript, and was rewarded with the permission to view Franklin’s most recent DNA x-ray patterns. These beautifully-clear photos immediately confirmed Watson’s suspicion that DNA was a helix, adding yet another piece of important information.

Based on all of the information that they had gathered, Watson and Crick began rapidly building models. One model, which Watson called “a very pretty model,” contained the wrong structures for two base rings. Fortunately, Donohue, who was an excellent structural chemist, set them right. After his correction, Watson and Crick noticed that hydrogen bonds would form naturally between the base pairs. This explained Chargaff’s findings, and also showed the potential for replication of the molecule. The rest of the model came together quickly, and Watson and Crick began to write up their structure.

Eventually, Linus Pauling began to catch wind of the recent work that Watson and Crick had been doing with DNA. His first actual glimpse of their work came in March 1953 when Watson sent a letter to Max Delbrück, a colleague of Pauling’s, that included a brief description and rough sketches of the structure. Although Watson had asked Delbrück not to show the letter to Pauling, Delbrück could not resist. Pauling marveled at the simplicity and functionality of the structure, but still retained confidence in his own structure. Only a few days later, Pauling received an advance copy of the Watson and Crick manuscript, but he was still not convinced they had solved DNA. In April, Pauling finally traveled to England, and only after seeing the model in person and comparing it to Franklin’s DNA photographs was he certain that Watson and Crick had solved the structure of DNA.

On April 25, 1953, Watson and Crick’s article, “A Structure for DNA” was published in Nature. James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins would go on to share the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 1962 “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.” Unfortunately, Rosalind Franklin died of cancer at age 37 and, for many years, was given only minor credit for her considerable contributions related to the discovery of the DNA structure.

For more information on Watson and Crick and DNA, please visit the website Linus Pauling and the Race for DNA: A Documentary History. For more information on Linus Pauling and his research, visit the Linus Pauling Online Portal.

The Martha Chase Effect

Martha Chase and Alfred Hershey, 1953.

Martha Chase and Alfred Hershey, 1953.

The Phenomenon

It pretty well goes without saying that the primary mission of the Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections is to preserve, describe and make available the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers.  Beginning, more or less, with the Pauling centenary in 2001, the main focus of our Pauling-related work has been description and accessibility via the web.  In so doing, we have scanned over one terabyte of data and created, at minimum, tens of thousands of static html pages devoted to the life, work and legacy of Linus Pauling and, to a lesser extent, Ava Helen Pauling.

Knowing this, one might reasonably assume that the top search engine query channeling into the content that we have created would be “Linus Pauling,” or some variant therof.  A reasonable assumption indeed but, as it turns out, quite wrong.  In 2008, as in 2007 and 2006 (a close second in 2005), the top keyword query for those who found our content through search was…”Martha Chase.”

Martha Chase was a geneticist who, in collaboration with Alfred Hershey, made an important contribution to the DNA story as it played out in the early 1950s.  Prior to Chase and Hershey’s work, scientists were mixed on the question as to what, exactly, was the genetic material.  Many researchers, Pauling included, initially felt that the stuff of heredity was contained in proteins.  Others, of course, eventually theorized that DNA was the source of genetic information.  Using an ordinary blender as their primary tool, Hershey and Chase devised a famous experiment which proved conclusively that DNA did, in fact, carry the genetic code.

Diagram of the Hershey-Chase Blender Experiment.  Image by Eric Arnold.

Diagram of the Hershey-Chase Blender Experiment. Image by Eric Arnold.

The breadth of Chase-related content that we have digitized is infinitesimally-small relative to the “reams” devoted to Pauling — this page and this page are pretty much it.  And yet, in the context of search, Martha Chase is the top draw to our resources.  It would seem then, that in the marketplace for information — at least that which is retrieved by search — supply and demand for Martha Chase approach their equilibrium at the two pages devoted to her work on our “Linus Pauling and the Race for DNA” site.

Looking through the web statistics, the phenomenon is remarkably consistent.  Not only has “Martha Chase” been the top search query for our domain over, essentially, the past four years, it was also the top search query for our domain over the final week of 2008.  Indeed, the trend has strengthened to the point where today, those who conduct the simple “Linus Pauling” search in Google will note “martha chase” as a recommended search related to Pauling, though in reality the two had little or no interaction at all.

Learning from the Chase Effect

Looking forward, the Chase Effect has become something that we’re thinking more and more about as we begin to develop new projects for the web.  Our top objective will always be to document Pauling’s impact on any number of fields, but in so doing there likely exists a great deal of opportunity for serving different user groups from what might be called “Chaseian” corners of the web.

To use the old many-fish-in-the-sea analogy, there is a lot of content related to Pauling on the Internet, and though we are the primary contributor to this content, we do compete for pageviews with scads of other extremely diverse projects.  (Take a look at the results for the simple “Linus Pauling” Google search to see how diverse the content providers really are.)  So it’s pretty clear that the Pauling sea is quite large and filled with all manner of creatures.

By comparison, Martha Chase represents a much smaller body of water and, in particular, image searches for her — which is probably where the lion’s share of our successful Chase referrals come from — are dominated by the domain.

The idea for future work is to think of the Pauling Papers as a collection of collections in attempting to uncover more Martha Chases.

To an extent we have already, somewhat unwittingly, done this with certain of the Key Participants highlighted on our various documentary history websites.  The Harvey Itano Key Participants page, for example, is the second result returned by Google for “Harvey Itano” searches.  Erwin Chargaff‘s page is seventh,  Arnold Sommerfeld‘s page is eighth and Edward Condon‘s is tenth, to name a few more examples.  In each instance, by developing mini-portals related to specific colleagues important to Pauling’s work, we have created resources that help meet the information demand of a non-Pauling user base.

As we standardize our metadata platforms — upgrading older projects and maintaining the standard for new — and, in the process, increase our capacity to “remix” our digital objects, the idea of enhancing existing mini-portals and creating new ones will emerge as an important consideration for our digitization workflow.  This is something that we’ll be talking a lot more about in the months to come.