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1953: Scientists describe 'secret of life'

Two Cambridge University scientists have published their answer to one of the most fundamental questions of biology - how do living things reproduce themselves?

In an article published today in Nature magazine, James D Watson and Francis Crick describe the structure of a chemical called deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA.

DNA is the material that makes up genes which pass hereditary characteristics from one parent to another.

In short, it consists of a double helix of two strands coiled around each other. The strands are made up of complementary elements that fit together and when uncoiled can produce two copies of the original.

Momentous discovery

This special property for accurate self-replication allows DNA to duplicate the genes of an organism during the nuclear divisions for growth and the production of germ cells for the next generation.

They began their article with the modest statement: "We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest."

On 28 February, Mr Crick walked into a Cambridge pub with Mr Watson to celebrate the fact that they had unravelled the structure of DNA, saying: "We have discovered the secret of life!"

The momentous discovery was the culmination of research by Medical Research Council scientists Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin in London, who produced X-ray diffraction photographs and other evidence.

In Context
James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work in 1962.

The discovery opened up some powerful and controversial technologies available today, including genetic engineering, stem cell research and DNA fingerprinting.

Their giant model of a section of DNA, built from laboratory clamps and pieces of metal, is now in the Science Museum in London.

Dr Watson gave a popular account of the discovery in The Double Helix published in 1968.

He also helped launch the Human Genome Project which has sought to understand the meaning of the "life code" contained in the long molecule that resembles a twisted ladder.

Rosalind Franklin died of cancer in April 1958, aged just 37, and as such never received a Nobel Prize for her crucial work in the discovery of DNA.

Francis Crick died in July 2004, aged 88 years, and Maurice Wilkins died in October 2004, also aged 88.


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