DNA - the minds behind the discovery

They worked together to find the structure of the secret of life - the DNA. They both shared the Nobel Prize in 1962 in recognition of their discovery, the are: James D Watson and Francis Crick.


The formative years

Watson was born in 1928 and raised in Chicago. He entered the University when he was only 15 years old. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology and a Ph.D. in the same subject at Indiana University. While doing his research at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, he learned about the biomolecular research, which was underway in the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge University in England. Spurred by an interest, he joined Cambridge and eventually Crick in 1951 to study the DNA.


Crick was born in 1916 in England. He enrolled in the University College where he earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Physics in 1937. He began in PhD work in 1947 at the Strangeways Laboratory, Cambridge with Arthur Hughes; they were studying the physical properties of cytoplasm and the culture of fibroblast cells. Two years later he joined the Medical Research Unit at Cavendish Laboratory. There he worked with Max Perutz and John Kerdrew on protein structure, he did his PhD word on x-ray diffraction of proteins. In 1951 he joined Watson to study the DNA.


Working together

While Watson brought with him knowledge of phage and bacterial genetics Crick brought to the project his knowledge of x-ray diffraction; together they would uncover the structure of the DNA in 1953. Crick had migrated from physics into chemistry and biology; Watson had studied ornithology, then gave it up for viruses, and then forayed into the world of DNA. He once wrote, "A potential key to the secret of life was impossible to push out of my mind…It was certainly better to imagine myself becoming famous than maturing into a stifled academic who had never risked a thought."

They worked in tandem, having a rhythmic partnership; one colleague described it as, "that marvelous resonance between two minds--that high state in which 1 plus 1 does not equal 2 but more like 10."


The race to find the map of life

By the 1950s the race to discover the secret of life was hotting up. In 1948 Linus Pauling had discovered that proteins take the shape of a spring-like coil and two years later, Erwin Chargaff found that the arrangement of nitrogen bases in DNA varied widely, while the amount of certain bases always occurred on a one-to-one ratio; both these discoveries would be important for the discovery of DNA.

The works of Pauling interested both Crick and Watson. Meanwhile at King's College in London, two other scientists, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin were also studying DNA. But the two teams were working at different levels. While the Cambridge team wanted to make a physical model and ultimately create an accurate picture of the molecule, the King's team took another approach, they were looking at x-ray diffraction of DNA images.


In 1951, Watson attended a lecture by Rosalind Franklin, where she presented parts of her study. She said that the DNA could exist in two forms depending on the relative humidity in the surrounding air; this she said helped her deduce that the phosphate part of the molecule was on the outside.

Based on the presentation, Francis and Crick made a model, which was actually a failure; the head of the unit asked them to close shop. But thankfully they secretly continued their research.


Meanwhile, Franklin and Wilkins weren't making much progress together, so Franklin was making inroads mostly on her own. Through her findings she slowly began to decipher the structure of the DNA; she found that it had a helical characteristic, but she still lacked some evidence and refrained from announcing her results. It is said that Wilkins in an act of frustration, secretly showed these results to Watson.


Watson and Crick then took the bold and crucial conceptual step to suggest that the molecule was made of two helical chains of nucleotides, one going up and the other coming down. Crick also threw in some information that he leaned from Chargaff's findings about the base pair being matched. Watson and Crick then showed that each strand of the DNA molecule was a template of the other, hence the DNA could uncoil, unzip and reproduce itself. This momentous discovery was made on February 28, 1953.

In June of that year, they published their findings in the British science journal Nature. The article created a sensation; this discovery has since been called the most important biological work since the last 100 years. It has now opened up several frontiers in genetics.


After the discovery

After their momentous work, James Watson became a Senior Research Fellow in Biology at the California Institute of Technology, before returning to Cambridge in 1955. He moved to Harvard University the following year, holding the post of Professor of Biology till 1966. In 1988, Watson was Associate Director of the Human Genome Project, which he would leave in 1992.

He has authored two best-selling book, The DNA Story, Molecular Biology of the Gene, Molecular Biology of the Cell and Recombinant DNA: A Short Course.


In 1960, Crick began studying functions of certain proteins associated with chromosomes called histones. He left Cambridge in 1976 and became the Kieckhefer Professor at Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego. Here he began his studies on the brain.

His books include: Of Molecules and Men, Life Itself, What a Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery and The Astonishing Hypothesis: Scientific Search for the Soul.