Thursday, May 17, 2012

Corresponding with an amino-acid nickname

Many of us are living and socially interacting with their nicknames. But can you image to use the name of an amino acid as your nickname—or worse, its associated three-letter code? That 's exactly what the members of the RNA Tie Club did  [1-3]: This club was founded in 1954 by the Russian physicist George Gamow, who was interested in the relationship between the molecular RNA structure and protein formation in living cells.

During the 1950s and 1960s it was “hot and hip” (in bioscience and beyond) to speculate about and gain insight into genetic information at the molecular level: the relation between the structure of the DNA strand with its four-letter code and the α-amino acids (see codes and names in different languages) that combine into proteins. Researchers started to realize that RNA, a single-stranded molecule, is playing a key role in this biomolecular translation procedure. To crack the genetic code—now known as the list of amino-acid-encoding three-letter codons of RNA (and DNA)—in a joint effort, the RNA Tie Club was formed. Its members included George Gamow, who was Ala for alanine, Sir Francis Crick (Tyr for tyrosine), James Watson (Pro for proline) and Sydney Brenner (Val for valine).

Each club member received a necktie with the double helix structure and a lapel pin showing his (no females involved) amino acid symbol (hence the club name). The club had 20 members, one for each amino acid of interest (the so-called standard amino acids) and four honorary members representing each nucleotide. Eight members won a Nobel Prize; but not for cracking the code. Ironically, Marshall Nirenberg and Heinrich Matthaei, the scientists who successfully deciphered the genetic code by clever experiments in 1961, were not members of the club. Obviously, the club gentlemen did not participate in the hands-on deciphering race as much as they enjoyed smoking, drinking, tie-binding and hypothesizing.   

 The last time I checked the Wikipedia RNA-Tie-Club page (, also see [2]) I found a table with all club members, their amino-acid designation and their training. Interestingly, only half of them were biologists or chemists, while the others came from a physics and mathematics background.

Keywords: history of science, biochemistry, molecular biology, scientific gentlemen's club, humor, anecdotes.

References and more to explore
[1] - The Official Web Site of the Nobel Prize: How the Code was Cracked. What Code? [].
[2] Power of the Gene > History of Genetics > The RNA Tie Club []. 
[3] Tim Friend: The Third Domain. The Untold Story of Archaea and the Future of Biotechnology. Joseph Henry Press, Washington, D.C., 2007; page 68.

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