The lucrative allure of the double helix

Story highlights

  • DNA is one of the most valuable discoveries in the history of science, writes Clive Cooks
  • Cracking genetic mysteries has generated more than $1tn of business activity

When Francis Crick and James Watson revealed the DNA double helix to the world, in a paper published in Nature 60 years ago next week, scientific glory was on their minds. Making a fortune, for themselves or others, was not.

Yet the discovery has turned out to be one of the most valuable in the history of science, ranking alongside the transistor and laser. Cracking the mystery of how genetic information is transmitted biochemically between generations has generated more than $1tn of business activity.

The corporate value of DNA was thrown into the spotlight this week with the $13.6bn sale of Life Technologies, a US manufacturer of instruments that read the chemical "letters" encoded in the intertwined spirals of the double helix. Biotechnology companies that make DNA-based diagnostics and drugs, from Amgen to Ziopharm, are worth hundreds of billions more.

At the personal level, too, the discovery has become astonishingly valuable, with collectors keen to buy into a story that combined scientific and personal drama. Last week, a letter written by Crick in March 1953 to his 12-year-old son, Michael, describing the "beautiful" structure of DNA, was sold at auction in New York for $6m -- a world record for a letter. The Nobel Prize medal he won in 1962 went for $2.2m the next day.

The fortunes of DNA over the past 60 years teach us the need for scientific patience -- now a scarce commodity, with both corporate and government funders of research expecting returns in ever-shorter timescales. It can take years for really important discoveries and inventions to attract public recognition, and decades for wider commercial applications to appear.

Although the double helix paper appeared in the most prestigious of journals, the press failed to pick up on it until three weeks later, when a paper reported a talk on the discovery by Lawrence Bragg, head of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge where Crick and Professor Watson were based. (The mass media also missed the invention of the transistor -- the basis of the electronic era -- in 1948, even though Bell Labs held a press conference to announce it. Apparently, the presentation was too long and technical for the journalists present to appreciate its significance.)

The Nobel Prize awarded to Crick, Prof Watson and Maurice Wilkins, their collaborator at King's College London, drew further public attention to their work. The 1968 publication of The Double Helix, Prof Watson's best-selling and superbly written book, really captured the popular imagination.

Biologists, by contrast, understood the significance of the double helix at once, and research teams on both sides of the Atlantic threw resources into finding out how cells implement the genetic instructions encoded in DNA. But it took 15 years to unravel the "genetic code" that translates the chemical letters into proteins, the working molecules of life.

With the genetic code established, serious commercialisation could begin. The science of genetic engineering -- transferring DNA between organisms -- made it possible to manufacture human proteins, such as insulin to treat diabetes, from cultures of bacteria or yeast cells. The biopharmaceutical industry got going in the 1980s, setting off arguments about the extent to which DNA can be "owned" through patents.

The Human Genome Project that followed, from 1988 to 2003, was the largest research programme in the history of biology. This yielded the complete sequence of 3bn chemical letters in the DNA of a typical human and a provisional list of the genes they represent. Although the benefits for human health have not lived up to the hype of 10 years ago, the financial returns have been astounding. Battelle, the research organisation, has shown that the US government's investment of $3.8bn in the project produced a cumulative economic return of $796bn.

According to the Battelle report, the genome project may be the best single investment ever made in science. And the impacts of DNA technology are just emerging. Large-scale benefits in medicine, agriculture, the environment and energy are still at early stages.

Reading DNA is rapidly becoming cheaper and faster. This year it will be possible to sequence the whole genome of an individual for less than $1,000 within a few hours. Technology is advancing so fast that the "$100 genome" will soon be here.

At the same time, we are learning more about what DNA actually means -- the complex layers of switching and control that overlay the genetic code. This knowledge should gradually usher in the long-promised era of "personalised medicine", in which treatment matches the individual patient's genetic make-up. For example, tumours such as breast cancer can be broken down into myriad subtypes, each requiring different treatment, on the basis of their DNA.

The next stage of genetic engineering is "writing" DNA -- the step that lies beyond the relatively simple addition and subtraction of one or two genes. This makes possible "synthetic biology", which may yield organisms capable of, say, clearing up environmental pollution and generating biofuels more effectively than today's technology.

If biologists deliver just a fraction of what they promise for the next 10 years, the legacy of the double helix will be rich indeed by the time we celebrate its 70th anniversary.