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Cracking the Code
by Prof. Yirmiyahu Branover

A little over 65 years ago, scientists still had no idea which part of the cell contained the genetic code. In 1944, renowned physicist Erwin Schrödinger wrote an influential book, What is Life, in which he proposed that the genetic material was contained in the nucleus of the cell, in the chromosomes. Schrödinger understood that in order to crack the genetic code of each organism, it was necessary to unravel the molecular structure of the chromosomes.

That same year, in another profound breakthrough, a group of scientists, Oswald T. Avery, Colin MacLeod and Maclyn McCarty, demonstrated through experiments that the DNA, the material making up the chromosomes, is indeed the carrier of the cell's genetic information. Their experiments paved the way for further probing of the structure of the chromosome.

The next half-century brought breakthrough after breakthrough: the first isolation of a single gene; the first cloning of a mammal, the sheep Dolly; the first genetically engineered plant; the first gene-replacement therapy for genetic disease; the huge project to map the entire human genome; and finally, the "creation" of a new species of bacteria using a synthetic DNA strand, formed in the laboratory. The future of genetic technology still holds many surprises in store for us, such as replacement organs, and synthetic bacteria that can produce oil or absorb carbon dioxide (the chief pollutant) from the atmosphere.

All this breathtaking progress began with the experiments of Oswald Avery and his associates. What is surprising is that he has never been awarded a Nobel Prize for his achievement. Why? Because the Nobel Committee could not accept that the DNA, with its relatively simple molecular structure, could hold the key to life.

Nevertheless, Avery's detractors were not able to hold up the train of genetic studies. Today we can say unequivocally that his discovery was one of the most fundamental of the past century. Even the Nobel Committee has acknowledged that it erred by not awarding the coveted prize to Avery.


Many years before Schrödinger, Avery and their confederates were born, in another era, in a small village near Safed, Israel, lived the great Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria. One Friday, shortly before sunset, he called to his students to walk with him to Jerusalem (a distance of over 200 kilometers!) to greet the Shabbat.

Some of his students agreed immediately. Others said they needed to go home and inform their wives (as Jewish law requires).

The tzadik's face fell and he said, what a shame, you've lost a golden opportunity. Had you all agreed to come immediately, without any delays--you could have brought Moshiach just now.

Nevertheless, despite the lack of faith of the Ari's students, the train of Redemption cannot be held up. It continues to travel on, and, with the passing of generations, it gets closer and closer to the goal. We are already at the final stop. By placing our full faith in the prophecy of Redemption, we can help the train cross over the threshold.


Prof. Yirmiyahu Branover is chairman of the Center of Magnetohydrodynamic Studies and Training at Ben-Gurion University.



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