Francis Crick and the Race: James Watson

11 May
2010

Crick’s principal collaborator on the structure of DNA was an American, James Watson, one of the most important researchers in the field of genetics. Born in 1928 in Chicago, Illinois, and being a very good student, he enrolled at the University of Chicago when he was only 15 years old and was graduated in 1947. However, both California Institute of Technology (CalTech) and Harvard University turned him down for their graduate programs. So he ended up at Indiana University, where he finished a doctorate in genetics. He received a National Research Fellowship to spend a year in Copenhagen. At a conference held at the Zoological Station in Naples, he met Maurice H. Wilkins, whose work convinced him to direct his research toward the structure of nucleic acids and proteins.

In 1950, Watson joined Cavendish Laboratories, where many other prominent people involved in genetic biology, such as Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and Rosalind Franklin, were trying to determine the composition of DNA. They had already found that DNA was a molecule with two strands that formed a tight pair. It was Crick and Watson who made the next big discovery. They proposed that DNA was a winding helix in which pairs of bases held the strands together. This model of the DNA double helix became an important development in the areas of biochemistry and molecular genetics.
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In the following decades, Watson went on to teach at CalTech; this was ironic, because he had initially been refused admittance to the school’s graduate program. He was promoted to Director at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York in 1968. Soon after that, the laboratory became one of the world’s most important research institutions for molecular biology. In 1988, Watson’s achievement and success led to his appointment as the Head of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Watson left the Human Genome Project in 1992; became President of the Laboratory in 1994; and 10 years later, he now continues on as Chancellor.

The Challengers

In 1948, another American, Linus Pauling, discovered that many proteins took the shape of an alpha helix, spiraled like a spring coil. In May 1952, a fellow researcher, Rosalind Franklin, obtained the first good photograph of the “B” form of DNA. The photograph showed a double helix, which was the second part of the problem that had to be proved. Franklin, though, was a perfectionist when it came to research, and she would not release any data on the “B” form until she had more information on the “A” form. She was performing analysis and verification but was not gathering additional data at the time.

Coincidentally, in May 1952, Pauling applied for a passport to visit England for a conference, but his request was refused because of accusations that he was a Communist. Many felt that if he had been able to attend Franklin’s conference, he would almost certainly have met her. If Franklin and Pauling had agreed to collaborate, between her data and his knowledge, they probably would have solved the structure of DNA first.
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Not releasing her information on the potential shape proved to be Franklin’s downfall, because she became bogged down with calculations and was obsessed with trying to determine whether another form was helical. She did briefly meet with

Crick, who tried to offer advice; eventually, however, she rejected the opportunity to collaborate. Again, this was an opportunity missed, for it is very likely that they would have solved the puzzle months or even years earlier!

Finally, in January 1953, others in frustration showed Franklin’s results to Watson, apparently without her knowledge or consent. Watson and Crick took a crucial conceptual step; they suggested that the molecule was made of two chains of nucleotides—each in a helix, as Franklin had found—but with one going up and the other going down. Watson and Crick showed that each strand of the DNA molecule was a template for the other. The structure fit the experimental data so perfectly that it was almost immediately accepted. The discovery of DNA has been called the most important biological work of the last 100 years, and the field that it opened may be the scientific frontier for the next century and beyond.

In Closing …

As a final look at the legacy of their great research reveals, Crick and Watson’s pivotal paper in Nature cites no authorities or historical record. It contains no experimental proofs, only hypotheses. No personal acknowledgment is made to Rosalind Franklin or Maurice Wilkins at King’s College in London beyond the following statement:
“We have also been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished results and ideas of Dr. M. H. F. Wilkins, Dr. R. E. Franklin, and their co-workers at King’s College London.”

In their Nobel lectures, Crick and Watson cited 98 references, but none of them were Franklin’s. Only Wilkins (who has also recently passed away) included her in his acknowledgments. Rosalind Franklin died in 1958, cementing her fate, because the Nobel Prize can be awarded only to living persons!

Today’s pharmacy directors often reap many of the benefits from the earlier works of Crick and his fellow researchers as they go about their daily routine. Practical examples can be seen in everything from new biologicals being developed via genetically engineered proteins to individualized patient protocols for breast cancer, using a patient’s unique genetic match to a specific therapeutic modality.

Similarly, our improved understanding of pure genetic expressions of childhood diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, and our early management programs targeting genetic predisposition to diseases such as adult-onset diabetes are now rooted in our knowledge of the genetic foundations of disease. Thus, the discovery of tomorrow’s cures may lie in the evolution of knowledge that was originally developed in the search for the double helix.
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As we prepare for the formularies of tomorrow, there is a growing expectation that individual genetic profiling may guide our therapeutic choices to a far greater degree than we could have imagined in Dr. Crick’s heyday. The result, it is hoped, will be significantly improved outcomes with greater safety and cost efficiency.

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