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The double helix turns sixty


It was on the last day of February 1953 that James Watson and Francis Crick finally cracked the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, popularly known by the initials DNA.  Others made important contributions, notably Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin whose X-ray diffraction images were crucial, but in 1962 the Nobel Prize was awarded to Crick, Watson and Wilkins.  The whole episode is brought marvellously to light in ‘The Double Helix’ by Watson himself.  It tells of the excitement of the chase and the fiercely competitive nature of the research.  They were alarmed that Linus Pauling might have beaten them to it when he published a proposed structure, until they realized that his alpha helix proposal was not even acidic, whereas DNA is quite a strong acid.

I live in Cambridge a few yards away from Crick’ former home next to the Hawk’s Club.  Ironically the sign to commemorate it is a yellow alpha helix hanging on the wall, rather than the double helix that DNA turned out to be.  I often visit the Eagle pub in Benet Street, which they dashed to just before closing time on the night of their great discovery, and drew in beer on the table the now famous double helical pattern.  They realized almost immediately that if the double helix splits with a couple of base pairs, to join with another separated half, there was a physical process that provided a mechanism for sexual reproduction.

DNA is now everywhere, helping in medicine, diagnosis, forensics and identification.  I signed up with 23andme a few years back to take a stroll through some of mine and see what might lie in store.  But it all started that night in Cambridge just 60 years ago…


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