History of Science ± How was the structure of DNA discovered?

In 1953, biologists Francis Crick and James Watson from Cambridge, England discovered the double-helical structure of DNA (or deoxyribonucleic acid). For their work, Crick and Watson were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. While the above passage is essentially true, it is a rather simplified statement. Other scientists were involved in research on the structure of DNA, and there is much ³behind the scenes´ history that is often not told. The discovery of the structure of DNA is a classic episode in the history of science, one that involves competition, politics, and issues of gender. Why were scientists determined to know the structure of DNA? Since about 1869, scientists had not agreed on whether or not nucleic acids were hereditary agents. Results from numerous experiments using strains of bacteria were interpreted in two ways: either DNA was responsible for heredity or it was not. Work on determining the structure of DNA itself began after 1950. James Watson and Francis Crick were just two of a host of scientists interested in the problem. When Watson and Crick began their work, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin from Kings College London were working on the structure of DNA using a technique called X-ray diffraction to produce images of DNA. Watson, however, did not get along with Franklin ± whom he called ³Rosy´ ± and his attitude toward her is characteristic of the sexism of the period. While scientists began to accept that the structure of DNA was indeed helical, confirmed by images from Wilkins and Franklin, they were unsure if it was a single, double, or triple helix. Watson and Crick decided that instead of relying on images and paper to solve the problem, they would use model building. Franklin and Wilkins went to Cambridge to view Crick and Watson¶s first model of a triple helix, and shared why they thought it could not work. Franklin then developed a new technique for X-ray diffraction that allowed a more clear image to appear, and thus the helical structure more apparent. Knowing the importance of her result, Franklin kept it secret, but Wilkins shared her discovery with Watson after a heated argument between Watson and Franklin. With Franklin¶s discovery in hand, and knowing that Portland-born chemist Linus Pauling was also working on the structure of DNA, Watson and Crick devoted all their time to the problem. Having been unsuccessful with a triple helix, Watson suggested they try a double helix since paired associations seemed more likely in biology. After struggling to find the correct pairing of amino acids, Watson fell upon two sets of pairs that were identical in shape: adenine-thymine (A-T) and guanine-cytosine (G-C). Watson and Crick then built a detailed model of the double helix, and had Wilkins come to look it over. Wilkins liked the model, and later with Franklin decided that the model fit with their data from X-ray diffractions. Francis and Crick, Wilkins, and Franklin all published papers on their work in the British science journal Nature. Further work in 1957 helped to confirm the double helix model as the correct structure. In 1962, Crick, Watson, and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, "for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.´ Unfortunately, Rosalind Franklin died in 1958 due to ovarian cancer, and since the Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously, she is often cited as a scientist whose work has gone unrecognized. The history of the search for the structure of DNA is full of competition between scientists, gender issues, and the trial and error nature of scientific discovery. Knowledge of this is important for learning about the nature of science as a human endeavor. Attending to the social nature of science can help visitors to understand that science in their own world is also a social enterprise. That is, scientific pursuits are conducted by people and for specific reasons, and cannot be separated from the social, cultural, religious, economic, and political atmosphere of the time. Likewise, the process of science and its results can be affected by class, race, and gender.

Pictures Watson (left) and Crick with their double helix model: Rosalind Franklin & an X-ray diffraction image of DNA: .

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