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The Symposia, 1933 — 2003

1966:   The Genetic Code, Vol. XXXI

Organizer: John Cairns

Table of Contents

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Watson and Crick had written in the second of their Nature papers that "...it therefore seems likely that the precise sequence of the bases is the code which carries the genetical information" and deciphering that code had been the holy grail of molecular genetics. But it had been a difficult project and, as Crick wrote in his introductory essay for the Symposium by "...1959, the coding problem was at a very low ebb." Approaches based on cryptographic principles were not successful, and Crick himself had suffered a reversal when the comma-less code proposed by himself, Griffith and Orgel, was found to be wrong. It is not surprising, then, that in a 1961 review, Erwin Chargaff had written: "In considering the problem of the nucleotide sequence in deoxyribonucleic acids we have barely turned the corner. There is a long road before us; and we shall not see its end."

However, in August of that same year, Marshall Nirenberg created a sensation at the International Congress of Biochemistry in Moscow, when he reported that he and his colleague Johann Matthaei had determined that polyuridylic acid led to the formation of polyphenylalanine; that is, the triplet UUU coded for phenylalanine. The biochemists had succeeded where the geneticists and cryptographers had failed, and by June 1965, the Code was known for 63 of

the 64 triplets. (the 64th triplet, c, was determined to be a stop codon by Sydney Brenner in 196?). As John Cairns wrote in the foreword: "The effort that has gone into this decipherment [of the genetic code], the strange sense of urgency, and the remarkable variety of approaches that have together led to the solution, must be without parallel in the history of biology." It was, as Francis Crick began his opening essay: "...an historic occasion."

Milislav Demerec had died on April 12, 1966 and it was fitting that a eulogy should appear in what was the last of the series of classic Symposia on genetics that had begun with Demerec' 1941 Symposium on Genes and Chromosomes: Structure and Organization. Written by Bentley Glass, the essay pays tribute to Demerec' contributions to genetics and to making Cold Spring Harbor an international communications center for molecular genetics.

Jan A. Witkowski

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