John Cairns on Great Moments in Research: Isolating the E. Coli Mutant
  John Cairns     Biography    
Recorded: 14 Jul 2000

But [the work that] I think it was very useful, the work when I stopped being director of Cold Spring Harbor—to isolate this mutant of E.coli that didn’t have the Kornberg enzyme, because that freed up people to search for the right enzymes because that enzyme, as it were, contaminated everything because there was so much of it. And once you got rid of it, you could look for the other enzymes—and that is indeed what happened.

It was interesting. I had a grant from [the] NSF [National Science Foundation] at the time and the NSF honcho who was in charge of that section was a guy called Herman Lewis, [Lewis] came up to me and said that if I’d asked for support to do that experiment—I did it on a grant which didn’t mention it at all—if I’d asked for support to do that experiment NFS could never have supported me. So I said it was just as well that I didn’t ask but just did it—and did that immediately after I stopped being director

[This bacterial mutant allowed me to] study DNA replication and look for enzymes that really do the job. [To] look for other enzymes and so on because this enzyme just fills in everything and is all over the place. It was crucial for tidying up the illogical problem of having DNA and who copies it. And that was tidied up, as I said in 1957, by Arthur Kornberg and Matt Meselson. But then the actual working out of what really happens, which of course is Bruce Stillman territory, really required the existence of this strain.

Now, I say it would have been discovered by somebody else because a mutant had already been discovered by a Japanese called Sui Condo (??) because he was isolating mutants that were very sensitive to ultraviolet light. And for which you have a selection. So he had a whole slew of different mutants and among that bunch was one that didn’t have the Kornberg enzyme—but he didn’t know it. And it would have been a few years before someone would have come along and tested it and found that. So I saved people a few years—but what is a year here or there, you know? And, you see, Rosie Franklin would have published the structure of DNA—and the meaning of this would have been given by other people—but it wouldn’t have been given in this flamboyant “Tom Stoppard” way [that Jim Watson has].

John Cairns, physician and molecular biologist, received his degree in medicine from Oxford University in 1946. Cairns worked as a virologist at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne, at the Virus Research Institute in Entrebbe, Uganda and at the Curtain School of Medical Research in Canberra.

From 1960-61, Cairns spent his sabbatical at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory under Alfred Hershey. He returned to serve as director of the Lab from 1963-1968, while continuing his research on DNA replication and initiating the technique autoradiography. During Cairns’s tenure, he saw Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory officially form from an amalgamation of the Long Island Biological Association’s Biological Laboratory and the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Department of Genetics. Cairns remained a staff member until 1972 when he was appointed head of the Mill Hill Laboratory of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund. Cairns subsequently worked at the Harvard School of Public Health until his retirement in 1991.

In addition to Cairns’s scientific endevours, he is also one of the editors of Phage and the Origins of Molecular Biology.