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Textiles and DNA – what’s the connection?

Andrew Filarowski takes a fresh look at an intriguing connection.

It has been argued that the discovery of DNA as well as our understanding of its structure and functioning may well be the most important discovery of the last century. The effect of the discovery of DNA on scientific and medical progress has been enormous, whether it involves the identification of our genes that trigger major diseases or the creation and manufacture of drugs to treat these devastating diseases. In fact, the identification of these genes and their subsequent analysis in terms of therapeutic treatment has ultimately influenced science and will continue to do so in the future.

But little is said about William T Astbury FRS who in 1928, was appointed Lecturer in Textile Physics at the University of Leeds. He remained at Leeds for the remainder of his career, being appointed Reader in Textile Physics in 1937 to look at the structure of fibres and predominantly protein based fibres to find an alternative to wool.

His work, which included creating the first x ray diffraction apparatus led to a whole new discipline, molecular biology, a phrase he coined and means so much more today. This pioneering research funded by the textile industry and the Worshipful Company of Clothworkers shows how important such research was for the future textile industry in the UK. He was looking to understand the structure to be able to better understand how protein fibres behave, why can they be curled, why does wool shrink and how science could replicate this to create a new fibre.

He was recommended for the post by William Bragg, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics with his son in 1915 (the only father and son team to be awarded the prize) for their work on X-ray crystallography.

His work produced the first X-ray diffraction of DNA with his PhD student Florence Bell and this would be critical for the future work of noted scientists such as Linus Pauling and of course Watson and Crick.

So without the textile industry maybe the discovery of the helical structure of DNA would not have happened when it did and maybe we would not yet have the genome project up and running. Added to that how many pioneering techniques which provide for a better life would still be undiscovered.  All of which gives us plenty to think about.

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