Life Story: Solving the structure of DNA


Watson and Crick discuss whether to tell Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin about their research

Broadcaster: BBC4

Year: 2004
(originally broadcast 1987 on BBC2)

Genre: Dramatisation

Length: 01:46:24

In the late 1980s, Horizon, the BBC’s flagship science series, took the unusual step of producing a feature length retelling of the events of 1951-52 leading to James Watson and Francis Crick solving the structure of DNA.

Inspired by Watson’s memoir The Double Helix, and with a screenplay by  William Nicholson (who later went on to write the script for Gladiator), the production starred Jeff Goldblum as Watson, Tim Pigott-Smith as Crick and Juliet Stevenson as Rosalind Franklin.

A colleague recommends that students watch this on their own as a “flipped teaching” exercise prior to more academic sessions on DNA structure.

The film is known in the USA as “The race for the double helix” and is listed on IMDB under that name. The most recent transmission of this programme pre-dates Box of Broadcasts, and this copy is uploaded from a VHS copy. In consequence, the quality is sub-optimal, but clear enough.


PooPrint Your Pooch (BBC Breakfast)

petpoohBroadcaster: BBC1

Year: 2016

Genre: News


Reviewed by Emma Sterling

“They might be cute but the mess some dogs leave behind is unpleasant and can also be dangerous. That’s why Barking and Dagenham council in East London are doing this: encouraging dog owners to register their pets’ DNA.”

It may sound like a joke, but this clip from BBC Breakfast (6 minutes) covers the story on the latest plans by the East London Borough of Barking & Dagenham to combat the problem of dog mess on the streets. Aside from being unsightly, dog faeces on the street pose a health risk, mainly to young children, who could contract toxocariasis by unintentionally ingesting roundworm parasites after touching mud laced with faeces. Barking and Dagenham spend approximately £2.3million a year cleaning up dog excrement and, in times of austerity, it is increasingly important that this sum is reduced by encouraging people to pick up after their pets.

The borough have partnered with PooPrints®, a company specialising in the genetic analysis of dog waste to give residents the opportunity to have their dog’s DNA stored on a database. This would be of potential benefit to registering owners to allow them to identify their dog if it is lost or stolen. Most importantly, in the context of the story, it will eliminate their pet in inquiries into the identity of any dog whose faeces have been left in the street. If the owner is found, they will be sent a warning letter. If there is a second offense, then they will be fined £80. At the moment, the service is voluntary which could be a problem as some may be unwilling to potentially incriminate themselves. However, the service is free for the first 1,000 dogs, which could provide an incentive, and the suggestion is made that it might be factored into future rent agreements in order to be granted permission to use the local parks. Continue reading

Proton or photon? Cancer-bashing particles

Radiotherapy1Broadcaster: BBC One

Year: 2016

Genre: News


Review by Ella Yabsley

A study published on the Lancet Oncology website in January 2016 reported that proton beam therapy was as effective as traditional photon radiotherapy for the treatment of paediatric medulloblastoma (a childhood brain cancer). The paper also suggests proton radiotherapy reduces toxicity towards normal tissues (compared to photon radiotherapy) and could improve long-term health outcomes for children with malignant brain cancer. At the present time, the NHS are paying for eligible patients to receive proton treatment abroad. From 2019, two new NHS proton beam therapy facilities will be opened in London and Manchester (more by private institutions).

This video file (11 mins), a combination of several shorter pieces from Breakfast News, gives background to the development including an interview with a paediatric oncologist who explains what the study does, and does not, show. It is a (relatively) large study but the observations appear not to be a surprise to those working in the field; the interest may be linked to the controversy surrounding the Ashya King case. Continue reading

Life, Energy and Thermal vents (Start the Week)

radioBroadcaster: BBC Radio 4

Year: 2015

Genre: Radio, Discussion


This episode of the regular Radio 4 programme Start the Week (45 mins) has an unusually biological focus. The studio guests are all authors of books or poems about biological matters.

  • Nick Lane (UCL) is author of several popular science books, including Life Ascending and the new The Vital Question: Why is life the way it is? Amongst other things, he discusses the importance of singular event – eukaryotic cell engulfing bacteria cell that became mitochondria – in the development of complex life.
  • Helen Scales has a particular interest in molluscs. She discusses their versatility and offers insights into organisms that live on hydrothermal vents. Her second book Spirals in Time (about shells) is published shortly.
  • Luke Rendell (St Andrews) is author of The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins. He discusses the social life of ocean going mammals.
  • Poet Laureate Andrew Motion has had a poem about seahorses commissioned by London Zoo. He notes that they are often killed accidentally, but are also sought after by practitioners of alternative medicines. They also, it is noted, have the “bad luck of looking beautiful when dead”.

The programme finishes with an interesting brief discussion on the importance of language use in science, particularly the attractions and danger of metaphor. Metaphor can bring to life notions that it is hard for people to follow (Lane notes that most biochemistry, for example, is too small to see). and science. Motion acknowledges the inherent tension in marrying the language of hard science with lyric poetry, which Shelley had observed is “vitally metaphoric”. Even the fact that we term a group of whales a “school” is value-laden. The suggestion is made that there is a “sweet spot” in the appropriate use of metaphor such that it adds value without becoming a limit to enquiry.

This is not a programme that you would want to sit a class down to listen to together, but it would be a valuable 45 minutes for A level or undergraduate students interested in science communication.

Code of a Killer

Code of a Killer tells the true story of the discovery of genetic fingerprinting and the first use in a murder case

Code of a Killer tells the true story of the discovery of genetic fingerprinting and the first use in a murder case

Broadcaster: ITV

Year: 2015

Genre: Drama, docudrama, true-life fiction

URLs: This programme was broadcast in two episodes (each 65 mins)

This two-part drama tells the story of the invention of genetic fingerprinting by Alec Jeffreys in the mid 1980s, and the first uses later that decade to solve the murders of two Leicestershire schoolgirls. Aside from minor artistic licence (and some name changes), the account is pretty faithful to the actual events.

Having been a student at Leicester in the late 1980s, I have always been familiar with the story. However the fact that a University Challenge team in 2014 struggled to answer a question on the discovery of genetic fingerprinting (before Jeremy Paxman generously accepted their answer “DNA testing”) is a reminder that these events took place long before most current students were born. There is therefore certainly merit in recommending that they watch the programme in its entirety.

Continue reading

The Killer In Me

4 celebrities volunteered to undergo genetic tests.

4 celebrities volunteered to undergo genetic tests.

Broadcaster: ITV1

Year: 2007

Genre: Popular science, documentary


A look at the potential for genetic testing to reveal disease risks. A detailed description of this programme is available over at our sister site Bioethicsbytes. This programme pre-dated the establishment of 23andMe, but many of the issues raised here overlap with more recent testing services.