By Sam Kean
As a young man, Friedrich Miesher had trained to practice medicine in his native Switzerland. But a boyhood typhoid infection left him hard of hearing and unable to use a stethoscope or hear an invalid’s bedside bellyaching. Miescher’s father, a prominent gynecologist, suggested a career in research instead. So in 1868 the young Miescher moved into a lab run by the biochemist Felix Hoppe-Seyler, in Tübingen, Germany. Though headquartered in an impressive medieval castle, Hoppe-Seyler’s lab occupied the royal laundry room in the basement; he found Miescher space next door, in the old kitchen.
Hoppe- Seyler wanted to catalog the chemicals present in human blood cells. He had already investigated red blood cells, so he assigned white ones to Miescher—a fortuitous decision for his new assistant, since white blood cells (unlike red ones) contain a tiny internal capsule called a nucleus. At the time, most scientists ignored the nucleus—it had no known function—and concentrated on the cytoplasm instead, the slurry that makes up most of a cell’s volume. But the chance to analyze something unknown appealed to Miescher.
To study the nucleus, Miescher needed a steady supply of white blood cells, so he approached a local hospital. According to legend, the hospital catered to veterans who’d endured gruesome battlefield amputations and other mishaps. Regardless, the clinic did house many chronic patients, and each day a hospital orderly collected pus-soaked bandages and delivered the yellowed rags to Miescher. The pus often degraded into slime in the open air, and Miescher had to smell each suppurated-on cloth and throw out the putrid ones (most of them). But the remaining “fresh” pus was swimming with white blood cells.
Miescher threw himself into studying the nucleus: a colleague later described him as “driven by a demon. But without this focus, he probably wouldn’t have discovered what he did, since the key substance inside the nucleus proved elusive. Miescher first washed his pus in warm alcohol, then acid extract from a pig’s stomach, to dissolve away the cell membranes. This allowed him to isolate a gray paste. Assuming it was protein, he ran tests to identify it. But the paste resisted protein digestion and, unlike any known protein, wouldn’t dissolve in salt water, boiling vinegar, or dilute hydrochloric acid. So he tried elementary analysis, charring it until it decomposed. He got the expected elements, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, but also discovered 3 percent phosphorus, an element proteins lack. Convinced he’d found something unique, he named the substance “nuclein”—what later scientists called deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA .
Miescher polished off the work in a year, and in autumn 1869 stopped by the royal laundry to show Hoppe-Seyler. Far from rejoicing, the older scientist screwed up his brow and expressed his doubts that the nucleus contained any sort of special, non-proteinaceous substance. Miescher had made a mistake, surely. Miescher protested, but Hoppe-Seyler insisted on repeating the young man’s experiments—step by step, bandage by bandage—before allowing him to publish. Hoppe- Seyler’s condescension couldn’t have helped Miescher’s confidence (he never worked so quickly again). And even after two years of labor vindicated Miescher, Hoppe-Seyler insisted on writing a patronizing editorial to accompany Miescher’s paper, in which he backhandedly praised Miescher for “enhanc[ing] our understanding … of pus.” Nevertheless Miescher did get credit, in 1871, for discovering DNA .