Oswald Avery, Colin MacLeod, and Maclyn McCarty showed that DNA (not proteins) can transform the properties of cells, clarifying the chemical nature of genes.
Avery, MacLeod and McCarty identified DNA as the "transforming principle" while studying Streptococcus pneumoniae, bacteria that can cause pneumonia. The bacteriologists were interested in the difference between two strains of Streptococci that Frederick Griffith had identified in 1923: one, the S (smooth) strain, has a polysaccharide coat and produces smooth, shiny colonies on a lab plate; the other, the R (rough) strain, lacks the coat and produces colonies that look rough and irregular. The relatively harmless R strain lacks an enzyme needed to make the capsule found in the virulent S strain.
Griffith had discovered that he could convert the R strain into the virulent S strain. After he injected mice with R strain cells and, simultaneously, with heat-killed cells of the S strain, the mice developed pneumonia and died. In their blood, Griffith found live bacteria of the deadly S type. The S strain extract somehow had "transformed" the R strain bacteria to S form. Avery and members of his lab studied transformation in fits and starts over the next 15 years. In the early 1940s, they began a concerted effort to purify the "transforming principle" and understand its chemical nature.
Bacteriologists suspected the transforming factor was some kind of protein. The transforming principle could be precipitated with alcohol, which showed that it was not a carbohydrate like the polysaccharide coat itself. But Avery and McCarty observed that proteases - enzymes that degrade proteins - did not destroy the transforming principle. Neither did lipases - enzymes that digest lipids. They found that the transforming substance was rich in nucleic acids, but ribonuclease, which digests RNA, did not inactivate the substance. They also found that the transforming principle had a high molecular weight. They had isolated DNA. This was the agent that could produce an enduring, heritable change in an organism.
Until then, biochemists had assumed that deoxyribonucleic acid was a relatively unimportant, structural chemical in chromosomes and that proteins, with their greater chemical complexity, transmitted genetic traits.
Last Reviewed: April 23, 2013