Crick and Watson

Unraveling DNA

Francis Crick and James Watson have led distinguished careers as scientists and scholars. The names may not resonate like Einstein or Da Vinci, but Crick and Watson's research identified the building blocks of all life on earth and changed the course of science forever.

What the two young scientists discovered in 1953 was the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, the same acronym as in "DNA testing" that helps police identify criminals. The discovery also spawned the biotechnology industry that has led to numerous scientific discoveries that have changed the way we live our lives, from the food we eat to the medicines we use.

"Francis Crick and I made the discovery of the century, that was pretty clear. We made it, and I guess time has justified people paying all this respect to me in spite of my bad manners," Watson once said.

Watson was only 25 when the pair made their discovery on Feb. 28, 1953 at the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge University in Great Britain. They began collaborating on studying the structure of proteins two years earlier. Crick, a post-doctoral fellow at Cambridge, had already been using X-ray crystallography to look at proteins.

Their initial experiments proved futile and they were ordered by the lab to discontinue their work. But they continued in secret and put together the pieces to the DNA puzzle.

DNA had been discovered in the 1860s, but it wasn't until the 1940s that scientists paid any attention to the simple acid. It was then that scientists found that chromosomes, which carried hereditary information, were made up of DNA and proteins. The accepted theory that proteins carried genetic material was also debunked at this time. It was found that DNA was the genetic carrier and thrust it into the forefront of scientific research.

Extrapolating on the X-ray photos of DNA taken by Rosalind Franklin, the work of Linus Pauling on a model of helical protein and the research biochemist Erwin Chargaff, Crick and Watson began building DNA models using wire and metal. After several failures, the pair put together the well-known "double helix" structure of DNA molecule.

For their work they were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1962, along with Maurice Wilkins.

Watson later taught and did research at the California Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Harvard. He was also director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a molecular biology research center. Crick, who had not finished his PhD. when he won the Nobel Prize, has been a researcher with the Salk Institute in California, investigating the origin of life and consciousness.


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James Watson