JAMES WATSON AND FRANCIS CRICK, names that will go done in history, transformed biology with their 1953 discovery of the molecular structure of deoxyribonucleic acid---DNA---the building block of all life. Their double-helix model cracked the code for how genetic information is passed from an organism to its offspring, laying the groundwork for the biotech Industry, the Human Genome Project and the first cloned animals.
But the story of the double helix is about more than the mind-meld of two brilliant scientists. Cold War hysteria and male chauvinism played a major part. Neither man started out as a biologist. Watson, an American, was a zoologist, while Crick, from England, started as a physicist. By 1951, both had switched to the emerging field of molecular biology and landed at Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England. Watson, then 23, and Crick, 35, were both brash, arrogant, and fiercely competitive. They decided to team up within a half hour of meeting each other in order to solve one of the key problems in biology at that time: the structure of DNA. By the end of the 1940s scientists had discovered that DNA contained an organism’s entire genetic blueprint. But it was not known how this seemingly simple substance—made up primarily of four key molecules—could encode so much complex information.
Watson and Crick spent all their waking hours on the question, driven by fear that they would be beaten to the solution by the famous American chemist Linus Pauling. But the age of McCarthyism bought them time. Pauling was about to board a plane to England in May,1952, to seek access to some highly detailed X-rays of DNA at King’s College London, when the U.S. government seized his passport, citing his “un-American” antiwar activities. The X-ray images were1 created by Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin. These two chauvinism scientists also hoped to crack the code, but their mutual dislike stymied their collaboration. Franklin, one of very the few women scientists at Kings, was ostracized to the point where she decided to leave. Wilkins showed Watson one of Franklin’s clearest DNA X-rays—without her permission—and it was the eureka moment: Watson realized that the cross-shaped patterns in the photo meant DNA had to be shaped like a helix. He and Crick built a metal model of two helixes held together by pairs of the four molecules. Their report on the model, in the April. 25,1953 issue of Nature, won Watson and Crick, along with Wilkins, the Nobel prize for medicine in 1962.
Franklin, largely unheralded, died of cancer in 1958. Watson and Crick continue to do groundbreaking genetic research. Watson has long been head of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, N.Y., which focuses on genetics, and he was a driving force behind the Human Genome Project. Crick conducts genetic research into the brain at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, (San Diego.) California. “Rather than believe that Watson and Crick made the DNA structure, I would rather stress that the structure made Watson and Crick,” Crick wrote in a 1974 Nature article. “But what is really overlooked.....is the intrinsic beauty of the the double helix.”
—by Catherine Arnst
July 19, 2004, (page 20
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