21st Century Left-Handed DNA

The left-handed DNA helix model that was displayed in the Seattle World's Fair ended up in storage in a utility tunnel underneath the Pacific Science Center. (We'll show the image here as soon as we get permission to show it on this page.) This link shows the image on the PSC Facebook page.

On January 11, Matt Young reported that the Institute for Creation Science announced a new logo that depicted left-handed DNA. Although regularly occurring in vivo in the form of Z-DNA left-handed DNA only represent a very tiny proportion of the world’s DNA which consists predominantly of right-handed B-DNA as Watson and Crick described it in their 1954 paper.

The ICR left-handed DNA logo made it on the pages of Tom Schneider’s Left Handed DNA Hall of Fame immediately and became the sites first entry in 2022.

The Institute for Creation Research has created a new logo representing their support for left handed DNA research and the ongoing takeover! First reported on 2022 Jan 11, new as of 2022 Jan 112

In most cases depicting DNA left-handed will be caused by mirroring a correct picture to better suit design purposes or likely more often by copying publicly available pictures. The same may be true for the ICR logo. Still, the incident reminded me of the likely first ever publicly displayed left-handed DNA model that was part of the Science Exhibition at the Seattle World Fair in 1962 which I came across when I studied the history of a right-handed DNA model Max Delbrück purchased for the Institute of Genetics of the University of Cologne.

There were two DNA models on display in the exhibition, a right-handed ball and stick model and a left-handed abstract model which depicted the four bases of DNA as poker card suits (diamonds, spades, clubs and hearts) adopting a presentation of nucleotides George Gamow used in a 1955 Scientific American article (1). Both models can be seen in the promotional film Century 21 Calling starting at 3:33.

When Gamow learned about the double helix structure of DNA he suggested a model by which DNA could encode protein sequences. It turned out later that this model was completely wrong (since the intermediate messenger- and transfer-RNA involved in protein synthesis were unknown back then he assumed a direct interaction between DNA and amino acids during the formation of protein chains), but he suggested that a code of triplets of bases of DNA would be sufficient to encode the 20 proteinogenic amino acids. This idea was adopted by Crick who together with Sydney Brenner, Leslie Barnett and R.J. Watts-Tobin proved the three-letter code in 1961. Actually, by the use of T4 one of the phages Delbrück introduced.

It remains unclear if Delbrück or Gamow, who both studied in Göttingen, Germany, spent some postdoctoral time in Niels Bohr’s lab in Copenhagen, and stayed in contact later in the US, were involved in the planning of the Seattle World Fair Science Exhibition. But Delbrück was corresponding with Hans Neurath who joined the University of Washington School of Medicine faculty in 1950 to head the new biochemistry department and later would become a member of the national science planning board of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.

However, its section on molecular biology, a science still in its infancy in 1962, would not have been possible without the scientific work Delbrück had done since the early 1930s. In a 1935 publication also known as the “Green Pamphlet” he, N. Timofeeff-Ressovky and K. G. Zimmer presented evidence that genes are material and not just abstract entities (2). Delbrück envisioned the gene as a collection of atoms that should be accessible for concrete experimental analyses. Since 1938 Delbrück worked in the US where he introduced bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria, into the scientific field that would become molecular genetics. Together with Salvador Luria, Delbrück demonstrated that mutations in microorganisms do occur randomly at a certain rate and are not a reaction to selection by a changing environment thereby proving that Darwin’s evolution theory also applies to bacteria (3).

After 1945 he established a yearly phage course at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory that would run until 1970. He also gathered the so-called phage group around him which beside many others consisted of later to become Nobel laureates Salvador Luria, Alfred Hershey, James D. Watson, Frank Stahl, and Renato Dulbecco. Hershey together with Martha Chase showed in 1952 that DNA is the carrier of genetic information. Watson together with Francis Crick unraveled the structure of DNA in 1953. Stahl together with Matthew Meselson later showed that both strands of a given DNA molecule serve as templates for newly synthesized strands thus, resulting in two daughter molecules that consist of one of the strands of the original double helix and a newly formed one (semiconservative mode of replication).

It should be noted though, that the Century 21 exhibit didn’t just display DNA as the newest scientific sensation but presented molecular biology in a much broader context that started out from Darwin’s Beagle voyage and presented genetics as the brainchild of evolution theory (4) that via phage genetics represented by a huge 3D model of the T2 phage, one of Delbrück’s T phages, led to the elucidation of the double helix structure of DNA as the molecular basis of inheritance. That the final report (5) summarized the exhibition under the title “Evolution and Heredity – From Darwin to DNA” and the visitors path started with the work of Darwin and ended with the DNA models indicates that Evolution Theory and the Modern Synthesis were central to the exhibition.

I couldn’t find contemporary reactions from creationists. However, this may be not surprising because Morris and Whitcomb published The Genesis Flood just the year before and the ICR would only be established a decade later. Thus, creationism in its today’s highly organized form just didn’t exist or any such critique is hidden in archives not accessible today. On the other hand, religion seems to have been a part of the exhibition which offered rooms for prayer and Billy Graham visited the fair. According to James Gilbert who covered the Seattle World’s Fair and especially the astronomy part of the science exhibition in his book “Redeeming Culture: American Religion in an Age of Science” (6) it turned out that “even in an age of science it would be unthinkable to avoid a major gesture towards religion”.

There was some back and forth regarding the involvement of religion. While there were suggestions for a Shrine for All Faiths, efforts for a Hall of Religions and a World of Religion display even attempts to depict Christianity with all its facets failed and a committee of local protestant churches, the Christian Witness, became the major religious presence with their own building on the fair ground. However, their idea to compete in the marketplace of ideas has not been too successful although reportedly at some point there were more religious than science events. According to Gilbert even Christian Witness admitted they’ve failed.

However, how effective was the science exhibition? Gilbert argues that it did not effectively teach the lessons it intended. Gilbert concluded:

“1962 no one could reconcile science and religion to the satisfaction of scientists or religious groups, if neither orientation to the world and its problems could prevail in public discussion, if the federal government, scientists, and the business community believed they needed to bring religion inside this grand American commemoration of scientific achievement, the lesson then and now is that science and religion cannot be reconciled nor can either be conquered or contained. The accommodation at Seattle continued the dialectic, extended a running exchange, and signaled the continuing revision of relationships. Extraordinary changes had occurred in American culture since the Scopes trial of 1925 and the foundation of the Conference on Science, Philosophy, and Religion fifteen years later. But nothing had been settled, and that in itself was the only settlement possible.”

Irrespective of the correctness of the orientation of the displayed DNA models one should be aware that they presented cutting edge science: Watson and Crick would only be awarded the Nobel Prize at the end of the same year, Jacob and Monod’s published their operon theory just the year before, the genetic code was still not fully deciphered, mRNA was more of a concept than an established fact, DNA sequencing was 15 years ahead and things like PCR or Crispr/Cas gene editing were not even imaginable. In addition, it has to be considered that the form and the shape of DNA haven’t been on public display to often before if at all and that the molecule was far from being the icon everybody nowadays recognizes and its name was likely unfamiliar to the majority of the population. Thus, one may conclude that the exhibit’s aim to explain how science works may have been too ambitious and its content may have been too complex for the general public.

For a European born in the early 60s the US always appeared to be on the cutting edge of science although I must admit that I was more impressed by things like the atomic car and rockets rather than genetics and evolution back then. I guess the same is true for the majority of visitors. On the other hand, the escalation of the conflict and the power creationism would gain was neither foreseeable at the time and it is sad to see how many people in the US still deny evolution.

There actually was a third correctly right-handed DNA model displayed outside of the exhibition hall which today is still in its original place in one of the pools on the fair ground.

  1. Gamow, G. (1955) “Information Transfer in the Living Cell.” Scientific American. 193,(4), 70–79 http://www.jstor.org/stable/24943758
  2. Timofeeff-Ressovsky, N.W. and Zimmer, K.G. and Delbrueck, M. (1935) “Über die Natur der Genmutation und der Genstruktur.“ Nachrichten von der Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen. 1935, pp. 190-245 https://www.ini.uzh.ch/~tobi/fun/max/timofeeffZimmerDelbruck1935.pdf
  3. Luria SE, Delbrück M. (1943) “Mutations of Bacteria from Virus Sensitivity to Virus Resistance.” Genetics. 28(6):491-511 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1209226/pdf/491.pdf
  4. US Department of Commerce (1962) United States science exhibit, World’s Fair in Seattle, 1962 Souvenir Guide Book]( https://spl.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15015coll3/id/503
  5. US Department of Commerce: United States Scientific Exhibit Seattle World’s Fair Final Report (1963) Library of Congress Card No. 63-60022 https://cdm16118.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15015coll3/id/311
  6. Gilbert, J. (1997) Redeeming culture: American religion in an age of science. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.