Watson & Crick & the discovery of the structure of DNA

James Watson and Francis Crick are very famous amongst the scientific community. In 1962 they both won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for successfully finding the structure of DNA. However before explaining the roles of Watson and Crick I believe it is important to introduce the previous studies of other scientists in this field in order to see how Watson and Crick made their discovery.

In the late nineteenth century a German Biochemist discovered the nucleic acids. Nucleic acids are large molecules where genetic information is stored. They are made up of phosphoric acid, sugar and nitrogen bases. It was later confirmed that the sugar in the nucleic acids can be of two varieties ribose or deoxyribose, RNA and DNA respectively. It was not until the 1940s that it was found DNA carried genetic information by an American scientist Oswald Avery and by the late 1940s it was generally accepted that DNA was a genetic molecule. In 1948 the spring coil theory was put forth by Linus Pauling.

This set precedent for what was to happen in the 1950s. Frances Crick was graduate student, graduating from University College London and was stationed at Cambridge University along with research fellow James Watson who graduated from the University of Chicago and Indiana University. At Cambridge Watson and Crick became interested in earlier work regarding DNA and they specifically wanted to create an actual picture of the molecule. Coinciding with Watson and Crick’s endeavours at Cambridge, DNA research was also taking place at King’s College in London. Franklin and Wilkins were using X-ray diffraction to study DNA. Watson and Crick used their results in order to continue their own research.

In April 1953 they discovered a molecular structure of DNA, the double helix. The double helix is formed by double-stranded molecules of DNA. This model of Watson and Crick’s has accounted for how DNA works, how it replicates and how genetic coding occurs on it. The term double helix grew significantly upon James Watson’s book The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. This discovery has been pivotal in the discipline of Molecular biology and studies still to this day stem from 1953. It is also currently used in the National Curriculum for GCSE Biology students. DNA models of the double helix are used is even used in popular culture on the CBS show The Big Bang Theory and most notably in film the starting credits of the X-Men franchise.

However it is important to mention that it was not only Watson and Crick that brought about the discovery. It should also be acknowledged that Franklin and Wilkins owed much to the discovery in 1953. Wilkins and Franklin used their knowledge of Physics to help solve biological problems like DNA. Unfortunately Franklin died in 1958 before the Nobel Peace prize for Medicine was awarded and perhaps due to this may have been the ‘forgotten discoverer’. Although Wilkins shared the award with Watson and Crick he too has to some extent suffered from the same fate. Some recent reports suggest sexism could be the reason as for why Franklin’s work is often overlooked however this does not explain Wilkins. Looking at all the information as a whole it is easy to simply draw conclusions that some of Franklin and Wilkins work was stolen. However there must be an appreciation for the evolution of others ideas and concepts when it comes down to discoveries, without other peoples work beforehand can we truly discover? See the Guardian’s article for more information- http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jun/23/sexism-in-science-did-watson-and-crick-really-steal-rosalind-franklins-data


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