Codebreakers – Wellcome traces the origins of modern genetics

By Grant Jacobs 06/03/2013

Genetics pervades the news today.

New gene therapies (treatment of a beagle to cure the dog’s diabetes or for haemophilia). Attempts to patent genes. Peering inside our own and animal genomes, to locate the causes of diseases like autism, or simply find what’s in there (like ERVs). Epigenetics. Optogenetics. And much, much more.

Where did all this come from?

Like the better-known Chargaff, Canadian Gerard Wyatt observed the ratios of the DNA bases important for the Watson-Crick model of the structure of DNA. He also noted 5′ methyl cytosine – now seen as key element of epigenetics.

All of us know of James Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin and their work on the structure of DNA. That story is part of popular knowledge.

There are plenty of other great stories too.

The Wellcome Library has presented a digital archive, Codebreakers: Makers of modern genetics. It includes an interactive timeline. (Don’t be put off by the seemingly few entries in the timeline on the opening page: zoom in an you’ll see plenty more stories. Also try clicking on the row of squares representing each story within a time period to reveal more.)

Browsing it you will find single paragraph glosses of the person’s work and links to further reading. The further reading is a mix of reviews covering the history of the work, links to their research papers (or translations), which are also offered as a separate archive.

You can browse by subject if you have particular interests.

Honor Fell gave Francis Crick one of his first research projects

The research papers of twenty scientists and organisations have been digitised and are available for readers, including Honor Fell (pictured adjacent), Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins and others people may be less familiar with, but who played key roles. (You can get a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes work involved by checking the full archive records, for example for Honor Fell.)

There is also an article by science writer Georgina Ferry, Genetics in context, offering an overview.

More content is to be made available over time.

One small grump I have is that there is no one-step link back to the history of genetics homepage from the timeline.


Some material requires a subscription to the Wellcome Library, for example the on-line copy of (portions of) Rosalind Franklin’s notebooks.

Other articles on Code for life:

Sea stars and mosaics

Crick’s letter to son, aged 12, explaining DNA structure model

I remember because my DNA was methylated

One example of why all those genomes from different species are useful to biologists

Epigenetics and 3-D gene structure