Monday, July 13, 2020

The Nature of Science Discovery: Case Study of mRNA

Environmental & Science Education
History of Science
Nature of Science
Edward Hessler

In the summary to "Who Discovered messenger RNA" (Current Biology 29 June 2020),
Matthew Cobb writes about the nature of most scientific discoveries. While we like the idea of priority, of the simple story that someone, a person, discovered X, this is seldom the case, making the history of science and the discovery all the more interesting.

"The announcement of the discovery of messenger RNA (mRNA) and the cracking of the genetic code took place within weeks of each other in a climax of scientific excitement during the summer of 1961. Although mRNA is of decisive importance to our understanding of gene function, no Nobel Prize was awarded for its discovery. The large number of people involved, the complex nature of the results, and the tortuous path that was taken over half a century ago, all show that simple claims of priority may not reflect how science works." (my emphasis)

You can read the paper as well as download a PDF here (public access) for the details of developments but the conclusion provides the take home message: many groups have some claim on a part of the full story. Cobb provides these in bullet points summarizing the contribution made by each team. Cobb also includes discussion of why there was no Nobel even though it is of Nobel Prize acknowledgement.

Scanning the paper is worth the time for you will find some comments made by an angry, well "furious," James Watson that he and his team had been "scooped" on an experiment and that a paper from another group was on the way to publication.  It was accompanied by an act of generosity from the competitors who "agreed to Watson's request, and the two articles finally appeared back-to-back...."  

Made me wonder that had this been reversed would Watson have been as generous? I doubt it.

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