History of DNA

In 2018, the 75th anniversary of important lectures in 1943 at Trinity College Dublin was marked in local news and at the College.

In modern times, the popularity of DNA testing has increased. Thus, while the following article says little about Clan Olochlainn directly, it marks important work in Ireland by a famous physicist. It will be of interest to readers around the world, particularly those who are using DNA trails as links to family history.

This report has been assembled by Ireland editor, Edward Ologhlen.

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Professor Erwin Schrödinger

Professor Erwin Schrödinger, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1933 for his work in quantum mechanics, devised a 1943 lecture series to be delivered at Trinity College Dublin. The first of the now renowned “What is Life” lecture series was presented by Erwin Schrödinger at the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies (DIAS).
Thus, one of the most important scientific presentations of all time was given at Dublin’s TCD lecture hall. Unbeknown to those in attendance at the time, the lectures would revolutionise our understanding of genetics, and go on to inspire the work that led to the discovery of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick.

Three years earlier, the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies was established by statute, by the then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Éamon de Valera as a centre of excellence for advanced scholarship focused on Celtic Studies, Theoretical Physics and Cosmic Physics.
He invited Professor Schrödinger to become the first Director of its School of Theoretical Physics and Schrödinger, who had been an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime, took up the offer so that he could get away from his home country Austria, as World War II was unfolding.

One of DIAS’s requirements was to hold an annual lecture series for a general audience. Prof Schrödinger devised the 1943 series and delivered it at Trinity College Dublin.
The lectures focused on the physical aspects of living cells, and in particular sought to examine how quantum theory impacted the structure of chromosomes and mutation.

The invitation to the 1943 lecture series

Collectively, the lectures are credited with transforming our understanding of genetics and inspiring the discovery of DNA: they outlined an early theoretical description of how genetic data is stored, and as a result had a profound influence in driving further research in the area, including that which led to DNA being discovered and the decoding of the human genome in 2003.
Indeed, DIAS has a letter from Francis Crick to Prof Schrodinger crediting ‘What is Life?’ as an influence in his and James Watson’s discovery of DNA.
The influence was made possible by the subsequent publication of the lectures in a book of the same name and translation into German, French, Swedish, Japanese, Italian and Russian, as well as the international media attention they garnered.

In 2018, Professor Werner Nahm, Director of the School of Theoretical Physics said:

At the DIAS School of Theoretical Physics, we are very proud to celebrate the 75th anniversary of this hugely influential lecture series, delivered by our first Director.
Schrödinger’s ‘What is Life?’ lecture series not only brought a broad range of theoretical physics concepts to the non-expert, but have also been widely credited with inspiring the discovery and decoding of DNA, our genetic building blocks.

Taoiseach Éamon de Valera’s signature on the register of attendees.

In 1994 Professor Bryan Sykes, a leading world authority on DNA and human evolution, was asked to examine the frozen remains of a man trapped in glacial ice in northern Italy. News of both the Ice Man’s discovery and his age, which was put at over five thousand years, fascinated scientists and newspapers throughout the world. But what made Sykes’s story particularly dramatic was his successful identification of a genetic descendant of the Ice Man, a woman living in Great Britain today.
How did Sykes locate a living relative of a man who died thousands of years ago? In his work, The Seven Daughters of Eve, he gives us a first-hand account of his research into a remarkable gene, which passes undiluted from generation to generation through the maternal line. After plotting thousands of DNA sequences from all over the world, Sykes found that they clustered around a handful of distinct groups. Among Europeans and North American Caucasians there are, in fact, only seven.

This conclusion was staggering: almost everyone of native European descent, wherever they may live throughout the world, can trace their ancestry back to one of seven women, The Seven Daughters of Eve. Naming them Ursula, Xenia, Helena,Velda, Tara, Katrine, and Jasmine, Sykes has created portraits of their disparate worlds by mapping the migratory patterns followed by millions of their ancestors. In reading the stories of these seven women, we learn exactly how our origins can be traced, how and where our ancient genetic ancestors lived, and how we are each living proof of the almost indestructible strands of DNA, which have survived through so many thousands of years.

During 2008 Sykes followed up his 2004 work with another publication entitled Saxons, Vikings, and Celts, which looked at the genetic roots of both Britain and Ireland.
In conjunction with The National Millennium Committee of Ireland and the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin funds were made available to Dan Bradley and his genetics team at Trinity College, Dublin. Dan had already been working on discovering the DNA path achieved by farm animals. Quoting from chapter nine which looks at the DNA of Ireland, Sykes says:

In Ireland, the maternal lineages are diverse and very old, while the Y-chromosomes are unexpectedly homogenous, and at first glance look comparatively young.
We have seen a difference between different regions of the island, a difference that may be an echo of the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland beginning in the 12th century.
We have seen some evidence of a genetic link between Ireland and Spain along the Atlantic fringe of Europe, which archaeologists are now beginning to realise was a much busier seaway than was once thought’.

The more recent discovery of the Cheddar man suggests that people with swarthy complexion and blue eyes lived in the UK some 10,000 years ago.

Meanwhile, as Schroedinger was proceeding with his Dublin lecture, those living in the west of Ireland were coping with food rations of tea, sugar etc. A particular clan member, Cathal was receiving thirteen shillings and two pence per week, his weekly wage from the army treasury through the Irish Department of Defence. Another, Mick OLoughlin of Ennistymon, was busy winning a number of South of Ireland golf championships at the Lahinch Links course. Changes seen today, in particular the expansion of social media activities, could not be envisaged by those living through World War II as they coped with food rationing and shortage of items such as clothing, rubber and even bicycles.

RTE News
Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies (DIAS)
Bryan Sykes, Oxford, UK