Books et al.Classics Revisited

The physicist and the dawn of the double helix

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Science  04 Oct 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6461, pp. 43
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaz4846

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  • Triple Helix Structure of Collagen

    The Triple Helix Structure of Collagen

    I read the article The physicist and the dawn of the double helix with interest [see Karl Sigmund, Science, 366 (6461), 43 (4 October 2019)]. The physicists in the same era also contributed to the triple helix structure of the collagen.

    The structure of DNA was decoded and published in 1953, revealing the double-helical shape but the structures of complex and even common proteins had then remained puzzling. On the suggestion of the renowned crystallographer John Desmond Bernal, the group of Gopalasamudram Narayanan Ramachandran in Chennai, India carried out the structural studies of collagen the most abundant protein among animals. Ramachandran used collagen from diverse sources (such as, shark fin, rat tail and kangaroo tail tendon) and showed that collagen has a ‘triple helix structure’ and published his results in a series of papers all with the direct title ‘Structure of Collagen’ (G. N. Ramachandran and G. Kartha, Nature 174 269–270 1954; G. N. Ramachandran and G. Kartha, Nature 176 593–595 1955; G. N. Ramachandran, Nature 177 710–711 1956; G. N. Ramachandran and V. Sasisekharan, Nature 190 1004–1005 1961). The ‘Ramachandran plot’ rank among the most outstanding contributions in structural biology, along with Pauling’s description of the α-helix and Watson and Crick’s discovery of the double helical structure of DNA (E. Subramanian, Nature Structural Biology 8 489–491 2001). The auditorium of the Central Leat...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • Messengers are not prescient

    Karl Sigmund reminds us that several of those who played major roles in determining the structure and function of DNA in the 1950s, later acknowledged the important influence of Erwin Schrödinger’s book "What is Life?" – a foray in 1944 of a “naïve physicist” into biology. After three quarters of a century we celebrate their work and he whose message inspired them (1). However, messengers are messengers. They are not themselves prescient. Schrödinger did not, as Sigmund implies, engaged in “prescient musings,” or have a “prescient vision.” While praise, indeed lavish praise, is rightly due to Schrödinger, accolades for prescience should go to originators of the ideas that inspired him. Who were they?
    Although there were various mid-twentieth century influences (2), in essays dated 1925 and 1960 that were published as "My View of the World" (1964), the young Schrödinger declared himself as having, in 1918, been "deeply imbued" with Richard Semon's “mneme” books (first published in the German language in 1904 and 1907). The new terms Semon introduced are still employed in some quarters (3), yet he was but another messenger. Today we can trace the fundamental ideas he espoused back to the writings in the 1870s of Ewald Hering in Prague and Samuel Butler in London (4-7).
    While Hering wrote one important paper, Butler expanded the argument in four prescient books that, albeit seldom cited, are also foundational in other areas. For...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • RE: Time to bow to Erwin Schrödinger again

    To the editor
    I read the article with great interest. Erwin Schrödinger` book "What Is Life?" a magnificent example of an interdisciplinary analysis of the prospects for the development of science. The significance of such an analysis is remarkably shown by the author of the article on the example of genetics through the impression of Watson and F Crick about ideas presented in the book. The author is also absolutely right when discussing the problem of the "vitalists" and the "mechanists." But I would like to emphasize the importance of the section of the book devoted to entropy in living systems. Personally I, this section of the book allowed proposing theoretical ZhGS formulas for determining optimal blood pressure (1) for clinical medicine. It seems to me that with the development of artificial intelligence and its introduction into biology and medicine, the value of the book will increase.
    1. Zhirkov A. Is it possible to reach consensus regarding target systolic blood pressure readings in various evidence-based guidelines? Preprint. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.33579.18721

    Competing Interests: None declared.