Reverse transcriptase is an enzyme that carries genetic information from RNA to DNA. It was first discovered by Howard Temin in a virus with an RNA genome (1). The discovery was a shock because genetic information was supposed to be contained only in DNA and to flow in only one direction, from DNA to RNA. So information flow in reverse, from RNA to DNA was originally thought to be impossible and after Temin’s discovery it was thought to be an oddity of viruses. Temin and David Baltimore won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of reverse transcriptase in viruses.
Prior to 1970, Mirko Beljanski PhD working at the Pasteur Institute, published data demonstrating the existence of RNA molecules in certain antibiotic resistant bacteria that are not copies of the bacterial DNA. So they did not arise from the traditional flow of information from DNA to RNA. Furthermore, he showed that these RNAs could transform other bacteria—meaning that they really do carry genetic information. This could be understood only if these bacteria contain a reverse transcriptase, which at the time had not been discovered. This research received a very poor reception in the scientific community that was steadfast in believing that information resides exclusively in DNA. Jacques Monod the director of the Pasteur Institute did everything to prevent Beljanski from moving forward and publishing this research.
Why was Monod so adamantly opposed to the possibility of information flowing from RNA to DNA? Indeed Monod was an absolute adherent to the fundamental bias of molecular biology, which stated that all genetic information is contained in DNA and flows exclusively from DNA to RNA. Francis Crick himself named this “The Central Dogma ” (2). In his highly publicized book “Chance and Necessity” (Seuil Pub.1970) p.124 Jacques Monod said: ” It is neither observed nor indeed conceivable, that information is ever transferred in reverse ” that is to say, from RNA to DNA.
To validate his research, which ran against the central dogma, Beljanski had to isolate reverse transcriptase from bacteria. He did this in 1972 (3) and it was immediately seen as a personal offense against Monod. Beljanski was a member of Monod’s department at the Pasteur articles, so Beljanski’s articles about reverse transcriptase were especially infuriating to Monod. From then on, he made life very difficult for Beljanski. Without these barriers put up against his discovery, Mirko Beljanski would have been the first, with his work from 1970 to 1972, to identity a reverse transcriptase in bacteria, and to show that information does flow in reverse in cells and not just in viruses. It turns out that reverse transcriptase has played a role in evolution and in multiple pathologies.
The existence of reverse transcriptase is fully recognized today. But Monod managed to stifle it so that Beljanski had to wait 17 years for Howard Temin to officially recognize the discovery and publication of this bacterial enzyme in a “retro citation” published in the journal Nature (4).
(1)H. Temin, Nature 226: 1211-3 (1970)
(2)Nature 227 (5258): 561-3 (1970)
(3)M. BELJANSKI, “Synthèse in vitro de l’ADN sur une matrice d’ARN par une transcriptase d’Escherichia coli“. C.R. Acad. Sci., 1972,274, pp. 2801-2804 (série D).
(4)H. Temin, Nature 342 (1989) p.242)