Nobel Prize for DNA Discovery

Watson and Crick with their model of DNA.

Watson and Crick with their model of DNA.

On October 18, 1962, molecular biologists and geneticists James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The prize was awarded “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material,” also known as the structure of DNA.

James Watson, a 23-year-old American research fellow, went to work at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory in England in the 1950s, and it was here that he met Francis Crick, a 35-year-old graduate student. The two both had a fascination with learning how genetic information was stored in molecular form and began to entertain the idea that they could figure out a molecular model of  DNA’s structure. These ideas were not far fetched – in 1943 medical researcher Oswald Avery suspected that DNA carried genetic information, and that it may actually be a gene. Most thought the gene might be a protein, not a nucleic acid, but still no one knew exactly how it worked or it’s molecular structure. Linus Pauling found that most proteins were alpha helix shaped in 1948, spiraling like a spring coil. A few years later, Erwin Chargaff, a biochemist, deduced that certain nitrogen bases in DNA always occurred in a one-to-one ratio. All of these hypotheses about DNA helped in the discovery of DNA’s structure.

Watson and Crick were not the only people actively trying to break ground on the subject of DNA’s structure in the early ’50s. Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin at King’s College in London were also studying DNA, using X-ray diffraction to beam X-rays through the molecule, creating a shadow picture of the molecule’s structure. Feeling patronized by most men in her field, Franklin often worked alone, and discovered using the X-ray diffraction images that DNA in its higher humidity form had a helical shape, however, she was not ready to make this announcement until she gathered evidence on its shape in its other form too.

Frustrated with Franklin, Wilkins traveled to Cambridge in January of 1953 and shared these findings with Watson and Crick, unbeknownst to Franklin. Shortly after Wilkins shared this data, Watson and Crick made a model consisting of two chains of nucleotides in a helix shape, one going up and one going down like a spiral staircase. They also used the findings Chargaff had deduced about matching base pairs to interlock the middle of the double helix and keep the distance between the two chains consistent.

Watson and Crick wrote about their findings in the April 1953 issue of Nature and explained that because each strand of DNA is a template for another, DNA molecules can reproduce themselves during cell division which allows organisms to accurately reproduce themselves with the exception of incidental errors, or mutations.

In 1962, when Watson, Crick, and Wilkins won the Nobel Prize, Franklin had already died, and the Nobel Prize cannot be given posthumously. Some wonder if Franklin would have been given the award for her findings if she had been alive.

This discovery is known as one of the most important in biological work in the last 100 years, and it opened up a whole new world of scientific discovery.

Sources: wellcometrust: The Human Genome,, PBS Evolution Library, Wikipedia


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