For British Science Week 2019, we are looking back at how Great Britain has shaped different scientific fields through its research and innovation. First, we are delving into genetics and molecular biology – from Darwin’s legacy, to the structure of DNA and now modern molecular techniques.

The theory of evolution by natural selection is one of the most famous scientific theories in biology to come from Britain. Before Charles Darwin famously published this theory, several classical philosophers considered how some traits may have occurred and survived, including works where Aristotle pondered the shape of teeth. 

These ideas were forgotten until the 18th century, when they were re-introduced by philosophers and scientists including Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.

 colorful bird

Darwin used birds, particularly pigeons and finches to demonstrate his theories. Image: Pixabay

In 1859, Darwin first set out his theory of evolution by natural selection to explain adaptation and speciation. He was inspired by observations made on his second voyage of HM Beagle, along with the work of political economist Thomas Robert Malthus on population.

Darwin coined the term ‘natural selection’, thinking of it as like the artificial selection imposed by farmers and breeders. After publishing a series of papers with Alfred Russel Wallace, followed by On the Origin of Species, the concept of evolution was widely accepted.

 darwin gif

Although many initially contested the idea of natural selection, Darwin was ahead of his time, and further evidence was yet to come in the form of genetics.


Double Helix

Gregor Mendel first discovered genetics whilst working on peas and inheritance in the late 19th century. The unraveling of the molecular processes that were involved in this inheritance, however, allowed scientists to study inheritance and genetics in a high level of detail, ultimately advancing the field dramatically. 

A major discovery in the history of genetics was the determination of the structure of deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA).

 double helix

DNA was first isolated by Swiss scientists, and it’s general structure – four bases, a sugar and a phosphate chain – was elucidated by researchers from the United States. It was a British team that managed to make the leap to the three-dimensional (3D)structure of DNA.

Using x-ray diffraction techniques, Rosalind Franklin, a British chemist, discovered that the bases of DNA were paired. This lead to the first accurate model of DNA’s molecular structure by James Watson and Francis Crick. The work was initially published in Nature in 1953, and would later win them a Nobel Prize.

The age of genetic wonder. Source: TED

By understanding the structure of DNA, further advances in the field were made. This has lead to a wide range of innovations, from Crispr/CAS9 gene editing to targeted gene therapies. The British-born science has been utilised by British pharmaceutical companies – pharma-giants GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and AstraZeneca use this science today in driving new innovations.