About

A project tracing Edinburgh’s role in shaping the revolutionary science of molecular biology.

In 1965 The University of Edinburgh took a wager on the future course of biology by opening one of the world’s first dedicated molecular biology departments. The bet paid off. Molecular biology took the scientific world by storm. Today, few discoveries in biology are taken seriously unless they are underpinned by a credible molecular mechanism.

This project will trace the threads of influence that link the work of Edinburgh’s molecular pioneers to our most up-to-date understanding of the workings of genes and cells.

The name of this blog, ‘molecular tinkering’, comes from a 1977 essay by the great French molecular biologist Francois Jacob. He used the term to describe how evolution has built lifeforms in all their breathtaking complexity and variety. Life is not the end product of a grand engineering project, but is a working model in a long series of prototypes. Evolution builds by using the tools at hand to tweak and refine the genetic instructions that every cell carries onboard.

The same kind of process characterised the development of molecular biology. The tinkerer’s spirit of playful ingenuity was particularly evident in the work of the Edinburgh researchers at the beginning of this new era in science. They rolled up their sleeves and delved into the very stuff of life, often fashioning their own tools to see and manipulate the invisible worlds of genes and proteins.

The craftsmanship and improvisation of the early days will be contrasted with what is happening in molecular biology labs today. Have we lost anything along the road to our current data-rich, resource-intensive approach?

By telling the story of a dynamic group of researchers, working through a revolutionary period in biology, we hope to unearth the key principles that foster creative, productive and collaborative science.

The final forms to deliver the project’s findings will emerge in due course. This website will be used to document the process and share ideas with the world.

The research is generously funded by the Kirkhouse Trust, but all the views presented here are the author’s own.

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