Frederick Sanger, Erwin Chargaff, and the metamorphosis of specificity

Gene. 1993 Dec 15;135(1-2):19-23. doi: 10.1016/0378-1119(93)90043-3.


That a transformation of ruling ideas in genetics and biochemistry took place at the dawn of molecular biology, in the late 1940s, is a commonplace; but the nature and components of that transformation are widely misunderstood. The change is often identified with the importation into biology of new styles of thought and new rigor by the many scientists trained in physics or chemistry who came into the nascent field--notably, Max Delbrück, Max Perutz, Francis Crick, John Kendrew, Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin. Most generally, the change is supposed to be the realization that genes are made not of protein but of nucleic acid--and this change was initiated, of course, by the work of Oswald Avery and his colleagues. These changes are not mutually exclusive, and both were surely important to the genesis of molecular biology. But logically prior to them, more fundamental, was another transformation in ruling preconceptions, one that has been neglected: the revolution in understanding of the chemical structures--the sequences of subunits--of proteins and of nucleic acids which was wrought by the work of Frederick Sanger and of Erwin Chargaff. This was a metamorphosis in the understanding of biochemical specificity, and while it astonished many biochemists it set free the small groups of those who were beginning to call themselves molecular biologists, enabling them to think of the relationship between genes and proteins in entirely new ways.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Genetics / history*
  • History, 20th Century
  • Nucleic Acids / chemistry*
  • Proteins / chemistry*
  • Transformation, Genetic*


  • Nucleic Acids
  • Proteins

Personal name as subject

  • F Sanger
  • E Chargaff