Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)
The molecule that is the basis for heredity, DNA, contains the patterns for constructing proteins in the body, including the various enzymes. A team of scientists, Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins determined its structure.
In 1962 James Watson (b. 1928), Francis Crick (1916–2004), and Maurice Wilkins (1916–2004) jointly received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their 1953 determination of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). Because the Nobel Prize can be awarded only to the living, Wilkins’s colleague Rosalind Franklin (1920–1958), who died of cancer at the age of 37, could not be honored.
The molecule that is the basis for heredity, DNA, contains the patterns for constructing proteins in the body, including the various enzymes. A new understanding of heredity and hereditary disease was possible once it was determined that DNA consists of two chains twisted around each other, or double helixes, of alternating phosphate and sugar groups, and that the two chains are held together by hydrogen bonds between pairs of organic bases—adenine (A) with thymine (T), and guanine (G) with cytosine (C). Modern biotechnology also has its basis in the structural knowledge of DNA—in this case the scientist’s ability to modify the DNA of host cells that will then produce a desired product, for example, insulin.
The background for the work of the four scientists was formed by several scientific breakthroughs: the progress made by X-ray crystallographers in studying organic macromolecules; the growing evidence supplied by geneticists that it was DNA, not protein, in chromosomes that was responsible for heredity; Erwin Chargaff’s experimental finding that there are equal numbers of A and T bases and of G and C bases in DNA; and Linus Pauling’s discovery that the molecules of some proteins have helical shapes—arrived at through the use of atomic models and a keen knowledge of the possible disposition of various atoms.
Visit Chemistry in History to learn more about DNA and the team of Crick, Franklin, Watson, and Wilson.
Excerpted with permission, Chemical Heritage Foundation