Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Readings from Trends in Biochemical Sciences on the Central Dogma

I'm re-reading The Inside Story edited by Jan Witkowski, the former editor-in-chief of Trends in Biochemical Sciences (TIBS). The book is a collection of essays that appeared in the journal. The collection centers around "the theme of the Central Dogma of molecular biology." Here's how Jan Witkowski describes the collection in the preface (page xii)...
When I came to look more closely, it was clear that the area the articles covered most comprehensively, where the most interesting selection could be made, was the Central Dogma, that is DNA, RNA, and protein synthesis. And the number of relevant articles was just right for the size of book we had in mind.
This explains the subtitle of the book, "DNA to RNA to Protein."

This is not going to be another complaint about misinterpretations of the Central Dogma. Quite the contrary, as we shall see.

The Forward was written by Tim Hunt who was the editor-in-chief from 1992-2000. He refers to "The General Idea."
"Jim, you might say, had it first. DNA makes RNA makes protein. That became the general idea." Thus did Francis Crick explain to Horace Judson years later, long after he had written with such clarity and force on the subject of protein synthesis in the 1958 Symposium on "The Biological Replication of Macromolecules" [see Crick, 1959). This article is celebrated for its prediction of the existence of tRNA (although by the time the article appeared in print, tRNA had been discovered), but it is chiefly worth reading and rereading, even today, for its enunciation of the two principles that together constitute the "General Idea." The first principle is the Sequence Hypothesis; the idea that the sequence of amino acids in proteins is specified by the sequence of bases in DNA and RNA. The second principle is the famous "Central Dogma"; not DNA makes RNA makes Protein, but the assertion that "Once information has passed into protein it cannot get out again." It isn't completely clear why one is a hypothesis and the other a dogma and the two together an idea. The Dogma stuck in some throats, mainly because it was called a dogma, with heavy religious overtones.
I quote Tim Hunt to show that there are some knowledgeable scientists who understand the Central Dogma [see The Central Dogma of Molecular Biology].

Hunt continues ...
Crick explains that calling it a dogma was a misunderstanding on his part: he thought the word stood for "an idea for which there was no reasonable evidence," blaming his "curious religious upbringing" for the error. But it probably wasn't that much of a mistake after all, for the Oxford Dictionary allows dogma to mean simply a principle, although the alternative "Arrogant declaration of opinion" is probably how most people who were not molecular biologists took it, considering its never modest author. That is probably how they were meant to take it, too. It was the most important article of faith among the circle of biologists centered on Watson and Crick and remained so for quite a long time until the mechanism of protein synthesis became clear. Crick said that if you did not subscribe to the sequence hypothesis and the central dogma "you generally ended up in the wilderness," although he did not offer alternative scenarios for public consumption, even though they probably played an important part in convincing him of the dogmatic status of the General Idea's second component.
This is the concept that I "grew up" with as a graduate student in the late 1960s. We saw the "General Idea" as an important concept and a way of understanding the data that was coming out of many labs working on DNA replication, transcription, and protein synthesis. We knew, especially after 1970 (Crick, 1970), that RNA could be used as a template to make DNA and that there were many types of RNA other than messenger RNA. We also knew that Francis Crick was a very smart man and it was unwise to disagree with him because he was usually right about big ideas.

Fig. 1. Information flow and the sequence hypothesis. These diagrams of potential information flow were used by Crick (1958) to illustrate all possible transfers of information (left) and those that are permitted (right). The sequence hypothesis refers to the idea that information encoded in the sequence of nucleotides specifies the sequence of amino acids in the protein.
At some point in the last 40 year the "General Idea" has been subverted in two ways.
  1. The Sequence Hypothesis has come to be interpreted as the Central Dogma. This is mostly due to Jim Watson who propagated this misinterpretation in his Molecular Biology of the Gene textbook.
  2. The Central Dogma is taken to mean that the ONLY important information in the genome is that which encodes proteins. It's assumed, incorrectly, that Crick meant to say that the role of all genes is to encode proteins.
One of the essays in The Inside Story is "Forty Years under the Central Dogma," published in 1998. The authors are Denis Thieffry and Sahotra Sarkar (Thieffry and Sarkar, 1998).

Here's how they explain some of the confusion about the Central Dogma ...
The most obvious interpretation of Crick’s original (1958) formulation of the Central Dogma is in negative terms. The Central Dogma only forbids a few types of information transfer, namely, from proteins to proteins and from proteins to nucleic acids. However, after its rapid adoption by most of the biologists interested in protein synthesis, it was most often interpreted or reformulated in a more restrictive way, constricting the flow of information from DNA to RNA and from RNA to protein (Fig. 1).

Figure 1 The Central Dogma as envisioned by Watson in 1965. ‘We should first look at the evidence that DNA itself is not the direct template that orders amino acid sequences. Instead, the genetic information of DNA is transferred to another class of molecules, which then serve as the protein templates. These intermediate templates are molecules of ribonucleic acid (RNA)...Their relation to DNA and protein is usually summarised by the formula (often called the central dogma).'

According to Watson’s autobiography, he had already derived this ‘formula’ (Fig. 1) in 1952. In fact, such schemes were commonly entertained during the early 1950s, at least among the biologists interested in protein synthesis. ... Much more restrictive than Crick’s original statement, Watson’s formula was immediately confronted with a series of possible exceptions, some of which are mentioned below. Crick, meanwhile, remained rather cautious in his interpretation of the Central Dogma. On several occasions, he felt it necessary to come back to his original idea and explicate what he thought to be its correct interpretation. For example, in 1970, Crick devoted a paper specifically to the Central Dogma, including a diagram reportedly conceived (but not published) in 1958.[see the figure at the top of this page]
The authors recognize several challenges to the Central Dogma, at least to the version preferred by Watson. There were two discoveries in the 1960s that seemed to threaten the Central Dogma. The first was the discovery that the genetic material of some viruses (e.g. TMV) was RNA, not DNA. The second was the discovery that RNA could be copied into DNA by reverse transcriptase. This was not a problem for Crick ....
These findings prompted Crick to write his 1970 piece for Nature, in which he explicitly showed how the new facts fitted into his scheme.
It's difficult to evaluate the importance of the Central Dogma in the 21st century because so many scientists don't understand it. The incorrect version seems to mostly serve as a whipping boy to promote "new" ideas that overthrow the strawman version of the Central Dogma.

Back in 1998, the authors of this article asked Crick what he thought of the Central Dogma ...
In a recent answer to a question addressing the relevance of these challenges, Crick stated that he still believes in the value of the Central Dogma today (F.H.C. Crick, pers. commun.). However, he also acknowledges the existence of various exceptions, most of which he regards as minor. For him, the most significant exception is RNA editing. Still, according to Crick, simplifications of the Central Dogma in terms such as ‘DNA makes RNA and RNA makes protein’ were clearly inadequate from the beginning.

Crick, F.H.C. (1958) On protein synthesis. Symp. Soc. Exp. Biol. XII:138-163. [PDF]

Crick, F. (1970) Central Dogma of Molecular Biology. Nature 227, 561-563. [PDF file]

Thieffry, D. and Sarkar, S. (1998) "Forty years under the central dogma." Trends in Biochemical Sciences 23:312–316. [doi: 10.1016/S0968-0004(98)01244-4}


  1. Larry,

    The "dogma'" you believe in and the reality are not really the same thing, which is unfortunate. What do you do beside blogging? Do you golf or garden, Larry?

  2. "The Central Dogma of molecular biology is invalid as an ‘absolute’ principle: transfer of information from proteins (and specifically from protein sequences) to the genome does exist."

    Does the central dogma still stand?. Eugene V Koonin

  3. Very useful, thanks a lot! (Once a student with Watson's textbook as main material.)

    @liesforthedevil: Your handle implies religious confusion. Your comment reveals philosophic, scientific and social confusion as well, since you obviously can't read. Moran's credentials are displayed on the page. The question of "reality" is a philosophical and not a scientific one - the General Idea however is a fact.

    And Koonin is obviously wrong - if prions using the vehicle of evolution is promoting protein sequence information, so is other epigenetic mechanisms such as methylation by protein action: "Thus, the Sup35 prion is a catalyst of protein variation that is often discussed in terms of the bet-hedging adaptation strategy [29,37,44]." [Disclaimer: I am no fan of Koonin. He does good stuff and he does erroneous stuff. This seems to be one of the latter.]

    1. In fact, let me amend that: Koonin makes interesting mistakes, and make you think. Maybe I am selling him too cheap. (Let it hereby be known that even trolls like "lies" hath their uses.)

      Don't get me started on his confusion over the anthropic hypothesis in physics in his 'big bang' biochemistry paper though... =D