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.

The Cell

The three part series is an excellent introduction to our developing understanding of cell biology

The three part series is an excellent introduction to our developing understanding of cell biology

Broadcaster: BBC
Year: 2009
Genre: Documentary

Series of three hour-long documentaries presented by geneticist Adam Rutherford.

1. The Hidden Kingdom

The first episode starts with the revelations brought by early microscopy. Specifically, the observation of minute organisms by Antonia van Leeuwenhoek. It moves on to discuss the work of Robert Hooke in confirming the existence of microbes, and broadening interest into analysis of other cells. Robert Brown observed and named the nucleus within a cell (and also described the phenomenon we now call “Brownian motion”. Theodor Schwann and Matthias Schleiden made vital observations about the importance of cells as the building blocks of both animals and plants (though they were not alone in getting distracted by prevailing notions of spontaneous generation). Louis Pasteur’s invention of the swan neck flask was ultimately crucial in ruling out this theory. The programme moves on to Robert Remak’s observation of cell division, for which the data – and the credit – was stolen by his “friend” Rudolf Virchow.

2. The Chemistry of Life

In episode two, Rutherford’s attention moves to the experiments which established that DNA is the molecule of inheritance. This is my favourite episode in the series. It sweeps across from the original identification of DNA by Friedrich Miescher in 1868, through the work of Theodore Boveri in visualising chromosomes, and onto Thomas Hunt Morgan’s experiments with Drosophila melanogaster looking at patterns of inheritance and the start of mapping genes within those chromosomes. It continues onto the more familiar molecular biology of Griffith & Avery, Wilkins & Franklin and Watson & Crick. It finishes with a certain “yuk” factor as Walter Gehring demonstrates mutant Drosophila covered with eyes as the result of homeobox gene mutations.

3. The Spark of Life

In the final episode, Rutherford moves to thinking about synthetic biology (a topic he returns to in the Horizon episode Playing God). One of the first developments in this regards involved adapting bacteria to make biodiesel. He puts these developments in the context of wider evolutionary theory, that all life sprung from one single organism.

Example usage: For several years I have used The Chemistry of Life with first year students. In a double-lecture slot (the episode is an hour long) I have shown the programme in its entirety, providing this A4 sheet to help students with their note-taking. In the remaining time we’ve reviewed some of the key curriculum-relevant content, particular reiterating the experiments by Griffiths and Avery.

The “modular” coverage of key discoveries lends itself to the overall programme being divided into shorter clips for specific usage. Since the links above go in effect to existing clips (albeit the full episode), to make sub-clips you would need to follow the link to the “full programme”.

As an Open University co-production, it was previously necessary to buy the rights to use of this material, however it is now included under the terms of the Educational Recording Agency license.