It may have been an unassuming introduction, but the paper published 60 years ago today in Nature, has given us one of the greatest ever insights into the mechanics of life, inspiring modern medicine and fathering an entire new biomedical industry.
On 25 April 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick modestly wrote: “We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid.” Today their proposal – the double helix structure for DNA – has become emblematic of how we envisage life itself.
While Darwin's theory on natural selection had given us insight into evolution, the discovery of DNA's shape has fuelled unimaginable advances in how we think about life. It has helped us fine tune theories of human evolution, laid the foundations for personalised medicines, been used to convict murderers and even made it possible to create artificial life.
Before Watson and Crick's landmark publication, biologists were mostly aware that the DNA molecule was fundamental to life – though many at the time argued it was too simple to tell the whole story. And its was widely known that DNA comprised four bases, known as A, T, G and C. But nobody had figured out what the molecule looked like.
As Watson and Crick noted in their paper: “It has not escaped out notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for genetic material.”
With that, they had revealed one of the biggest clues to the secrets of life we have yet to uncover.
While Watson and Crick have become famous for their discovery, they were quick to point out the invaluable contribution of Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin at Kings College London, who did much of the X-ray diffraction that confirmed their hypothesis.
Indeed Crick, Watson and Wilkins were to go on to receive the Nobel Prize for their discovery – Franklin's name was unfortunately not added to the list, as she had passed away, and the prize rules stipulate the recipient must be alive to receive it.
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