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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 April 2003, 07:58 GMT 08:58 UK
Stunning creativity of DNA pioneers
X-ray image of DNA
King's College images like this one were crucial in the 1953 discovery
Courtesy King's College London
Professor Adrian Hayday of King's College London tells the story behind the discovery of DNA's structure in 1953.

A remarkably short scientific paper, known officially as a letter, was published on 25 April 1953 in Nature, by James Watson and Francis Crick.

It was perhaps the most momentous paper of the modern era, proposing a structure for the chemical, DNA (Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid), which composes the hereditary material of all living cellular organisms.

The proposed structure - a double helix - rapidly became an icon, aesthetically beautiful, and stunning in its capacity to explain how DNA is replicated in order to transmit the genetic material to the next generation.

Watson and Crick's paper was published without their undertaking a single experiment
Few would be surprised then by the grand scale of the celebrations being planned to mark the paper's 50 anniversary in 2003.

A week of events is scheduled to include scientific colloquia, theatre and art projects, television coverage, nationwide schools' activities, and public discussions of both the scientific and ethical issues germane to current DNA-based research.

Historical debate

It is fitting that the events in Britain begin on April 22, 2003 at King's College London.

Fitting because Watson and Crick's paper was published without their undertaking a single experiment.

Instead, the experiments underpinning their albeit inspired models were undertaken over the previous three years in the Strand basement laboratories of the Medical Research Council Biophysics Unit at King's.

The prime movers in obtaining the data at King's were Professor Maurice Wilkins, who had commenced pilot studies on the use of X-rays to analyse DNA structure, and Dr Rosalind Franklin, a Fellow who arrived at King's in January 1951, and who advanced the X-ray resolution of DNA structure to a new level of clarity and sophistication.

Their data were published alongside the Watson and Crick paper but because neither provided a compelling model for DNA structure, they have often been overlooked.

In 1962 Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize with Watson and Crick but Franklin had tragically died a few years earlier at the age of 37.

Today one often reads press stories that refer only to Watson and Crick, and of Cambridge, and make no mention of King's.

The acclaim that Watson and Crick received seems an appropriate response to their stunning creativity.

Yet in deference to fidelity, and to the application of experimental technique, it seems deeply disconcerting that those painstakingly generating the data might not receive appropriate credit.

In particular, the failure of Franklin to receive any substantial credit has been widely questioned and commonly condemned.

Modern consequences

We assume that such a situation could not arise today, where publications attributed to scores of authors are seemingly designed to fully protect everyone's interests.

Indeed, the cultural mores of contemporary science may have formed in part as a reaction to the 'DNA story', with individuals highly protective of results and materials, and grant success and academic promotion commonly responsive to the strong, self-advocating personality cultures that increasingly dominate strong academic departments across the globe.

Moreover, the insight that the discovery provided into how human characteristics arise from our individual genes created a veritable super-highway of research, ushering in gene therapy for inherited diseases and culminating in the recent sequencing of the human genome.

Almost as an incidental, the discovery paved the way for a whole new arena of human endeavour, the biotechnology industry.

The theme of how DNA technology affects everyday lives will continue in the area of prenatal diagnosis and treatment, and as the day at King's continues, there will be a public debate on the ethics of DNA-based procedures, and a play considering the human dilemmas created by the impact of DNA technology on medicine.

Irrespective of what strange circumstances surrounded the discovery of the DNA structure in the years leading up to 1953, the events in 2003 should remind people of where the critical experiments were undertaken.

It should not escape our notice that those experiments are having a colossal impact on our future.

Widespread attendance of the events on 22 April would seem an appropriate and enjoyable way to consider what lies ahead.

Adrian Hayday, Professor of Immunobiology, is a member of the King's College London DNA steering group, set up to look at ways of marking the 50th anniversary of the publication in Nature of the discovery of the structure of DNA.

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