This article describes events related to the first papers published in the 1960s describing nucleotide excision repair (NER) and homology-dependent recombinational repair.Here's are the relevant papers.
Setlow, R.B., and Carrier, W.L. (1964) The disappearance of thymine dimers from DNA: An error-correcting mechanism. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (USA) 51:226–231. [Full Text]Setlow, Howard-Flanders, Hanawalt and others are widely recognized as the scientists who discovered DNA repair in the early 1960s.
Boyce, R.P., Howard-Flanders, P. (1964) Release of ultraviolet light-induced thymine dimers from DNA in E. coli K-12. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (USA) 51:293–300. [Full Text]
Pettijohn, D, and Hanawalt, P. (1964) Evidence for repair-replication of ultraviolet damaged DNA in bacteria. J. Mol. Biol. 9:395–410. [PubMed]
The recent Nobel Prize for DNA repair went to Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich, and Aziz Sancar and the citation implied that Tomas Lindahl discovered DNA repair.
In the early 1970s, scientists believed that DNA was an extremely stable molecule, but Tomas Lindahl demonstrated that DNA decays at a rate that ought to have made the development of life on Earth impossible. This insight led him to discover a molecular machinery, base excision repair, which constantly counteracts the collapse of our DNA. [Nobel Prize, Chemistry 2015]It's simply not true to say that the rate of spontaneous decay of DNA makes the development of life on Earth impossible. If that were true, then DNA repair enzymes would have had to arise at the same time as DNA and that didn't happen. The Intelligent Design Creationists are making a big splash over statements like that because, if true, it strongly suggests intelligent design. It may be true to say that once large genomes evolved, DNA repair and accurate DNA replication became selectively advantageous but that's not what the Nobel citation says.
It's certainly not true that Tomas Lindahl was the first one to realize that DNA repair is important.
Let's look at how the leading science journal in the world covered this story in the issue of Oct. 7, 2015 [DNA repair sleuths win chemistry Nobel]. We expect Nature to do a much better job of getting the history right.
The 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to three researchers for their work on DNA repair.Tomas Lindahl was still a student when the first papers on DNA repair were published. By the 1970s it had already been known for a decade that DNA gets damaged over time and two mechanisms of repair had already bee reported in the scientific literature. This statement in Nature is very misleading.
Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar “mapped, at a molecular level, how cells repair damaged DNA and safeguard the genetic information”, says the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, which awards the prize.
DNA is not a stable molecule, but slowly decays over time. For life to exist, as Lindahl first realised while working at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm in the 1970s, there must be repair mechanisms that fight back against this process.
Numerous scientists have since chronicled the many ways in which damaged DNA is patched up, says Stephen West, who works on DNA repair at the Francis Crick Institute in London, where Lindahl is now an emeritus group leader. “The DNA repair field is a large field,” he says. “Many of us thought a Nobel would not go to this field because there are so many people with a claim to the prize."It's true that there are many scientists who have contributed to our understanding of DNA repair and it's true that there are many different mechanisms. The prize was given for discovering DNA repair mechanisms that are different from those published in the 1960s.
But the three repair mechanisms recognized with the Nobel prize "are probably the three most important and best understood mechanisms," West says, adding that the awards are "fantastically well deserved".
Fair enough. I might have made a different decision but that's not the point. The point is that having picked latecomers to the field, you still have to get the history correct. This article in Nature would have been the perfect place to give credit to those early workers who discovered DNA repair. Steve West could have made sure that the Nature reporter got it right.
Lindahl, who is regarded as one of the founders of the field, chronicled a process dubbed base excision repair, in which specific enzymes recognize, cut out, and patch up bases in the DNA molecule. Before his work, "I don’t think anybody really considered the idea that DNA requires active engagement by a set of housekeeping processes to keep it in a stable state," says Keith Caldecott, who studies DNA repair at the University of Sussex, UK, and did postdoctoral work with Lindahl.... those ignorant of history are not condemned to repeat it; they are merely destined to be confused.
Stephen Jay Gould
Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977)I can't imagine what Keith Cladecott was thinking when he said that. Clearly he is wrong because lots of people knew about DNA repair enzymes before Lindahl. I started to work on DNA binding proteins in 1968 and I knew about repair enzymes back then. Lindahl did a lot of his graduate work with Jacques Fresco in the lab right above where I was working (he got his Ph.D. in 1967). I suspect he knew about the work of Setlow, Hanawalt, Howard-Flanders etc. because he hung out with the same people I did. (I don't recall if we overlapped.)
Surely an active worker in the field like Keith Caldecott knows the history? Maybe he thinks that the 1960s mechanisms don't count as "housekeeping"? (They do.)
I'm sorry if I come across and being an old fuddy-duddy about these things but it's one thing to ignore the past and quite another to misrepresent it. You can ignore it if you want but you don't have to lie about what really happened.
If you are ever tempted to write about the history of a field you're not familiar with, remember the famous saying by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder, "Google is your friend."1
1. The internet was down in Pompeii on August the 25th, AD 79. Otherwise Pliny the Elder would have known about toxic fumes and not died during the eruption of Vesuvius.
Rupp, W.D. (2103) Early days of DNA repair: discovery of nucleotide excision repair and homology-dependent recombinational repair. Yale J Biol Med. Dec 13;86(4):499-505. [Full Text]