The Most Beautiful Experiment: Meselson and Stahl

john karen said on the telephone in a very excited voice he had just read mendel’s papers and you know they are the most beautiful experiments in biology and i gasped and i said john john you can’t say that you said the messelson stall experiment was the most beautiful experiment in biology oh did i well i was wrong watson and crick didn’t make a discovery they proposed a model there are those who believe this model must be true because it was so beautiful and there were those who believed it must be wrong because biology is complicated and this model is too simple to be right would you say exactly yes but there was no experimental proof of it they had a model which made a distinct prediction about how dna replicates and it needed to be tested and it’s fun to test the hypothesis we agreed that we were going to work to get together to figure out whether or not it was right when frank and i showed semi-conservative replication it wasn’t just a model it was something real like that after our experiment it was now widely accepted that their model watson creek model is right so it became the building block you might say for all of biology yeah from very early childhood i mean practically infancy i love science i loved to put wires together to make little radios which i could put under my pillow so my parents wouldn’t know that i was listening to them all night long and then i was very interested to know what makes life work and there had been i think in the house maybe even in my bedroom that painting by michelangelo you’ve gone up high and adam billow and they’re touching fingers i don’t know if there is a spark i don’t think there’s a spark in the picture but i’m not sure but to me that meant that life is somehow electrical that god is providing life through a spark and for some reason that made me interested in electrochemistry unlike matthew i had no particularly strong interest in science as a as a youth it was understood that when i graduated from high school i would apply to the naval academy that’s what my mother had in mind because she thought i would look good in dress whites but then of course world war ii broke out so that plan changed fast and she decided i should just go to college i think i was just too young to understand the courses in humanities i hadn’t had enough life experience to get a grip on the questions they were even thinking about science on the other hand was concrete children can can grasp science and among the sciences biology was the most appealing there the fun was that you could figure out puzzles that is there was a rational concrete quantitative explanation for what you saw you could reason backwards as to what must be going on and that intrigued me enough to know that genetics was something perhaps i could do i had the great good luck to become linus pauling’s last graduate student his daughter was having a party at the swimming pool and i’m in the water and pauline comes out the world’s greatest chemistry i’m all naked in a practically a bathing suit and he’s all dressed up with a jacket and a vest and a necktie and he looked down at me well matt what are you going to do next year and i had already signed up to go to the committee on mathematical biophysics and linus looked down at me and he said but matt that’s a lot of baloney come be my graduate student

and so if i hadn’t taken his course on the nature of the chemical bond i would have had a very different life i wouldn’t have met frank i wouldn’t uh i wouldn’t be sitting here that’s for sure at the end of my phd exam as we were walking out of the little exam room linus pauling turned to me and he said matt you’re very lucky you’re entering this field just at the right moment yeah at the very beginning yeah the first year of my being a graduate student at cal tech i wanted to get into biology i was a chemist and i thought the way to do that would be to study molecular structure the only person who was looking at biology from that point of view other than linus pauling himself was max delbrick he had a fearsome reputation nevertheless i got up my courage went to see him he’s not a fearsome creature at all really and the first thing he said was what do you think about these two papers from watson and crick i said i’d never heard of them i was still in the dark ages and he yelled at me he said get out and don’t come back till you’ve read them there were two separate ideas that came together crick’s idea about how the base pairs linked onto the chains and jim’s idea about how the base pairs were structured so there are four different building blocks in dna adenine thymine guanine and cytosine the surfaces of the g and the c are complementary to each other and of the a and t are complementary to each other so that they can fit together the way fingers would fit into a glove and importantly when they put g opposite c the distance of the outside was exactly the same as if they put a opposite t no other combination would give such a regular structure it was a gorgeous insight and then from that they made a hypothesis about how dna is replicated it involved the two chains coming apart and each one acting as a template for the synthesis of a new chain on its surface when it’s all done here we have the two old chains each one now associated with a brand new chain what watson and crick proposed was enormous stimulus to experimentation it was irresistibly beautiful irresistibly beautiful jim watson was at caltech the year after he and francis published their papers and so i got a chance to talk a lot with jim then and that coming summer he was going to go and teach the physiology course at woods hall i was a graduate student at rochester at the time my chairman of the department who was also on my committee said i had to take a foot course in physiology and i said the physiologist teacher here is a jerk i’ll be damned if i’ll take his course well send him to woods hole to take the physiology course there and by serendipity jim watson happened to be there with some kid named meselson hanging along with him we found that we had in fact deep common interests i realized this is a guy who’s really very smart and i can learn a lot from him i remember a haze of beach parties lectures that i slept through it was a kind of paradise the most interesting people in molecular biology most of them were there so that’s how we met and then it turns out frank is coming that very september to cal tech another year from then i would come are you sure yep oh i still hadn’t finished so i had to wait for a whole year before i saw you again that’s right he said when you get to caltech we’ll test jim’s idea what do you think about testing jim’s idea of how dna replicates and then he explained that to me i’d already heard about it he explained it to me and i absolutely committed totally and then when frank finally got there and i wanted to start right away he forbaded why he said it would be bad for my character to not complete my x-ray crystallography before starting something new this is tells you a lot about frank’s character with the watson crick model the underlying question of course was was that really the right mechanism the famous max delbrick said no no no no that model can’t be right and he proposed a different model

as delbrook put it forth breaks are introduced in the parental molecule as it’s being replicated and then carefully sealed up in certain ways others proposed one in which the original dna molecule stays intact and the new dna molecule is made of all new dna so there were three targets out there that in principle could be distinguished if you could trace the fate of the old chains what becomes of the two old chains one step led to the next really i mean the first idea using density somehow is not a very good idea yet except it leads you to the next one matt’s idea from the very beginning was that somehow stable isotopes could be used that would be incorporated into the dna and impart upon the dna a different density you grow bacteria in a medium which instead of having this ordinary isotope of nitrogen n14 you can buy nitrogen 15 ammonium chloride the heavy kind and if you grow the bacteria for a number of generations you can be sure that essentially all of the dna is labeled with the heavy nitrogens good now we resuspend those cells in a medium that just has ordinary nitrogen 14 the light one and now the question is as the dna molecules replicate how will the heavy nitrogen from those parent molecules be distributed amongst the daughter molecules that are produced in successive duplications then some sensitive method for separating dna according to its density would be devised i ran across an article about the centrifugation of cesium chloride solutions to measure their molecular weight if the dna was in there with the cesium it would find its position in the density gradient if it was heavy dna it would tend to be down near the bottom of the tube where the cesium was concentrated and the density was high if the dna was light dna made of light isotopes it would be higher up in the tube you could think about it this way if you jump into the great salt lake as we all know you float you go right to the top because you are less dense than the water but if you have a bathing suit with pockets in it and you stuff some lead weights in your pockets you’ll sink down because you’re more dense than the water now imagine that the salt in the great salt lake is not uniformly distributed but is concentrated near the bottom and rather less concentrated near the top now if you put just the right number of heavy weights in your pocket you won’t float because you’ll be too dense you won’t slow it at the top and you won’t go all the way to the bottom because you’re not dense enough you’ll instead come to rest somewhere halfway between the top and the bottom you will have found your place in that gradient and that’s the very basis by which the experiment finally worked and worked so beautifully and then it was just a question of looking in the centrifuge while it’s running and when it reaches equilibrium to see where the heavy and light dna are all the makings were there then to do the experiment itself it was obvious that the experiment was going to give an answer driving it all was the fact that frank wanted to know how life works and that’s yeah i don’t know that drove at all but each person is trying to come up with something as a gift to the other guy that’s true i think that’s true so it becomes a very connected relationship because the next day you want to have something to offer mount was ready to step out into an area oh pretty heavily uncharted to answer an important question and the pieces had to be built as he went along the prediction of the watson and crick model two parent chains come apart each one makes a new daughter molecule and that’s replication so that would predict that after exactly one generation when everything has doubled in the bacterial culture that you’d find the dna molecules all have

one old strand which is labeled heavy and one new strand which is labeled light and therefore their density should be halfway between fully heavy and fully light that would be the prediction for what you see at exactly one generation what do you predict to see for the next generation well each molecule would again separate its chains one of which is heavy the other of which is light and the only growth medium available is light growth medium then the light chain would make another light chain to go with it a compliment the heavy chain would make another a light chain to go within so after two generations you have dna half of which is half heavy and the other half of which is all light and fantastically that’s exactly the result that one could see in order to say that the watson crick model fits the data very well but the other two models do not we have to see what they predict start with the dispersive model after one generation the two molecules resulting would indeed be half heavy but in the next generation there would be a subsequent dispersion of the label so you’d be getting molecules that were three quarters light and one quarter heavy and in each generation the molecules would get lighter and lighter the fully conservative model simply imagined that duplex dna fully heavy now somehow created the appearance of a fully light duplex molecule in which both chains are made of light dna most of the times when you get an experimental result it doesn’t speak to you with such clarity these pictures of the dna bands interpreted themselves it felt like of course supernatural it felt like you were in touch with the gods or something like that i remember i presented this result that summer early in the summer in france at a phage meeting uh complete with the with the photographs of the density gradient bandings and at the end of it i i stopped and there was total silence and somebody said well that’s it the intellectual freedom at caltech we could do whatever we wanted it was very unusual for such young guys to do such an important experiment so suddenly was before that like max would be talking with sinsheimer about the genetic code and before we did our experiment i was definitely not at least i felt i wasn’t supposed to be at those discussions but afterwards i could be a full member we had this wonderful house big house across the street from the lab and our roommates we all we talked about these experiments at almost every dinner so we had this wonderful intellectual atmosphere uh john drake howard temen why are you frowning you told the dirtiest jokes i’ve ever that was roger milkman he told me well okay you’re right positions one and two that’s true that’s true that’s true so it was a very lively intense friendly atmosphere it was lively enough and conveniently located enough that over time we had visits from william o douglas uh judge douglas judge douglas of the supreme court and here dick feinman probably one of the world’s greatest physicists at that time or maybe ever paled around with us he came over to our big house and played his drums down sat down on the floor played the drums i’m just a graduate student and he’s the world’s greatest physicist but that’s what it was like it was a very friendly wide open place frank and i are very lucky the way i think of it is that there’s a river which is the period of time when the fundamental things the structure of dna how replication happens the genetic code and then it when these solves these problems are solved there are lots of little rivulets the river divides into thousands of branches using these fundamental insights into how

life works and applying them to specific questions questions of disease etc etc so to me with some exceptions this was the really interesting time when it was still a big river also now you can cut this out but also the meselson’s matt’s parents were kind enough to keep the liquor cabinet fully stocked at all times so my throat is a little bit i have a cough drop suffering alcoholic beer no no no no i require a margarita i’ve worked for the cia with the giant squids and all that i vaporized many people including many of your friends big black beard and blew out some of his pike smoth and still holding his pipe stem in his teeth and oh man history is just what people think it was you