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4/7/2003

DNA Double Helix Hits 50

Cheryl A. Thompson

Fifty years ago this month, the British scientific journal Nature published a brief article—the text might have fit on one page if not for the figure—that laid the groundwork for the development of pharmaceuticals based on genetic material and the ascertainment of the human genome’s sequence.

Celebrate Scientific Advancements

Various events are planned to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of James D. Watson and Francis F. H. Crick's article proposing the structure of DNA and to celebrate the completion of the final draft of the human genome. Three such events are described below.

  • A two-day scientific symposium, April 14 and 15, to be webcast from the National Institutes of Health, home of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). Among the planned speakers are Watson and NHGRI Director Francis S. Collins. For more information, go to www. genome.gov.   
  • "Secret of Photo 51," airing April 22 (8 p.m. EST) through the Public Broadcasting Service. The NOVA production chronicles Watson and Crick's proposal of the double helix and the role that one of Rosalind E. Franklin's x-ray diffraction photos played in the discovery.   
  • "Genome: The Secret of How Life Works," a traveling exhibit that starts its public debut in June at the Smithsonian Institution's Arts and Industries Building. The exhibit is supported by a grant from Pfizer Inc.

Postdoctoral research fellow James D. Watson and physics graduate student Francis H. C. Crick1 had proposed that DNA existed as a double helix in which thymine always paired with adenine through hydrogen bonds, cytosine always paired with guanine, and an outer backbone of alternating phosphate and deoxyribose groups provided support for the large molecule. 

“It has not escaped our notice,” the authors wrote near the end of their article, “that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.”

Watson and Crick, along with biophysicist Maurice H. F. Wilkins, who coauthored the second article bearing the general title “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids” in the April 25, 1953, issue of Nature, received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. Wilkins had conducted many of the initial laboratory experiments—obtaining x-ray diffraction patterns of the electrons in DNA to determine the physical dimensions of the protein and observe its symmetry.

The prize recognized Watson, Crick, and Wilkins “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.”

Crystallographer Rosalind E. Franklin, lead author of the third Nature article, had conducted the x-ray diffraction studies providing the first evidence that the predominant form of DNA, also called B-DNA, had a helical structure. Franklin died in 1958, before the prize-awarding body recognized the work of her colleagues.

An unofficial testament to the importance of Franklin’s work can be observed in the library at the National Institutes of Health: Both pages of Watson and Crick’s article still appear in the 1953 bound volume of Nature, whereas the first page of Franklin’s article, showing the x-ray picture of DNA’s double helix, has been neatly removed.

Watson, who is some 12 years younger than Crick and Wilkins, still maintains an active scientific career. He is president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. Crick is a distinguished professor and president emeritus at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California. Wilkins is an emeritus professor at King’s College London, England, where he and Franklin worked and first met Crick.

  1. Watson JD, Crick FH. Molecular structure of nucleic acids: a structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid. Nature. 1953; 171:737-8.