Re: Namer of DNA? (History, old Germans etc)

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From:"J. A. Kiernan" <>
Date:Fri, 15 Oct 1999 01:39:47 -0400 (EDT)
Content-Type:TEXT/PLAIN; charset=US-ASCII

On Thu, 14 Oct 1999, John C. Dennis wrote:

> I've enjoyed the history seminars today.  Would one of you guys dig in
> your books (look to your right, John) and dig up who gets credit for
> naming DNA.  It's one of the old dead histologists (Austrian?) who was
> actually doing cytohistochem back when Americans were busy blowing each
> other up.

  It's old, dead Teutonic chemists this time. According to West & Todd's
  Textbook of Biochemistry (2nd ed., 1956; an excellent source of
  information not to be found in modern biochem books), F. Miescher
  isolated "nuclein" from pus cells. Its physical and simple chemical
  properties were those of a mixture of nucleic acids. Later work
  by the same investigator showed that salmon sperm (almost entirely
  nuclear material) contained "nuclein" (acidic) and a strongly basic
  protein ("protamin"). The term nucleic acid was introduced by
  R. Altman in a paper published in 1889. Recognition of the subunits
  as phosphate, sugars and purine/pyrimidine bases came gradually,
  from several people's work. Credit for recognizing that ribose
  and deoxyribose were the sugars present in the 2 nucleic acids
  is given to P. A. Levene.  W & T refer their gentle readers to
  a book by PA Levene and LW Bass (1931) "Nucleic acids." Chemical
  Catalog Co., New York. Wilbert Todd himself also reviewed the
  subject in Harvey Lectures, Series XLVII, 1951-1952.

  A specific histochemical test for DNA was published by R. Feulgen
  and H. Rossenbeck in 1924. Nowadays only the 1st author gets the
  credit for this, one of the oldest and most revered of histochemical
  techniques, and still the best way to make a permanent preparation
  in which only DNA is stained (and also fluorescent, though this
  fact is not shouted out by those who sell expensive fluorochromes).
  The Feulgen method is something truly great because it is easy to
  do, absolutely specific, and the intensity of staining is proportional
  to the concentration of DNA, a fact recognized about 1950 (when it
  was quite a challenge to make valid microspectrophotometric
  measurements) and exploited ever since.

  Feulgen was the boss, and his name went first on the paper. These
  days it would probably have been Rossenbeck & Feulgen, with a
  footnote indicating that correspondence should be with R.F. so
  that readers would know who was who. The technique might then be 
  the Rossenbeck-Feulgen method, with due recognition and immortality 
  for the subordinate who (probably) did 90% of the work. 
  "Oh let us never, never doubt what nobody is sure about." (H.Belloc)

  The histochemistry of nucleic acids is thoroughly reviewed both
  historically and chemically in Pearse's "Histochemistry." Any
  edition of the book is OK for the earlier techniques.  

  This does not exactly answer the question, "Who named DNA."
  Perhaps someone else will come up with that. The original papers
  alluded to were all in German journals. I haven't seen any
  of them myself, and feel quite guilty about never having had a
  go at Feulgen's classic. Todd and Pearse are in English. Pearse
  cites an argumentative paper by Kanwar (1960) The Microscope 12: 245 
  which might contain original refs to the names and abbreviations.
  Kanwar favoured PNA over RNA. West & Todd also called it PNA.

  History may be bunk, but so is the notion that all worthwhile 
  knowledge is less than 10 years old (promoted by those who
  wield power and think libraries are a waste of money when you
  can look everything up on the Web). The details of
  current methods are usually recent, because there's always
  scope for improvement. The 1924 Feulgen hydrolysis procedure was
  improved upon in the 1980s. Immunohistochemistry is the same
  age as the DNA in the cells of my lens and brain. Methods have
  improved since my 2nd intrauterine month, and nobody would now 
  use the original technique of Coons, Creech & Jones. 

 John A. Kiernan,
 Department of Anatomy & Cell Biology,
 The University of Western Ontario,
 LONDON,  Canada  N6A 5C1


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