DNA was born from two fathers and one mother.

By | May 1, 2023

It was on April 25, 1953 when James Watson and Francis Crick made one of the most iconic publications in the journal Nature, which changed the course of science: it was the publication that described the structure of the double helix of DNA, paving the way for great achievements in biology, genetics, medicine (and more).

This publication earned Watson and Crick world fame and a Nobel Prize in 1962 (which they shared with Maurice Wilkins of King’s College London). However, it is estimated that none of the three would have won the Nobel were it not for another scientist, the chemist and X-ray crystallographer at King’s College London, Rosalind Franklin.

Because Franklin was the first to use X-ray crystallography to capture the DNA double helix in a famous photograph, the so-called 51 photograph, which has even inspired art: Anna Ziegler’s play of the same name was performed in London starring Nicole Kidman. in 2015, while his performances on the Athenian stage have just ended.

The (wrong) popular story

Essentially, what has been believed for decades is that Watson got this image without Franklin’s knowledge and based it with Crick on the discovery of the structure of DNA. Well, Franklin, although methodical and very analytical as a researcher, had the image in her hands for eight months without being able to “decipher” it. And it only took one look from Watson to give the… torturous answer.

Franklin’s contribution was very important as she was the only expert in X-ray crystallography. (Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

This story remains so popular to this day that it has even generated jokes on Twitter, one of the most famous being the following: “What did Watson and Crick discover in 1953? The Franklin Data”.

However, in their lengthy article published in Nature (the same journal as the 1953 publication), two scientists, Matthew Cobb, Professor of Zoology at the University of Manchester, and Nathaniel Comfort, Professor of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins report that they have discovered new evidence that shows that things were not so.

Thorough investigation on unknown material.

The two professors conducted extensive research on previously unknown or overlooked material and concluded that Franklin had not failed to understand the structure of DNA. On the contrary, he equally contributed to solving the greatest puzzle in biology.

What was this material? The two professors “scanned” Franklin’s file at Churchill College, Cambridge and examined his notes. They also found a draft of a 1953 newspaper article written with Franklin’s input that would be published in America’s Time magazine. They also found a letter from one of Franklin’s associates to Crick.

All of this evidence was, according to what they write, evidence of Franklin’s equivalent contribution to the discovery of the DNA double helix, a contribution that could not have been “captured” in a Nobel for her anyway, since she died. too soon, in 1958. , from ovarian cancer, at just 38 years old, and Nobel Prizes are not awarded to scientists posthumously.

What the new data shows

Neither more nor less, the new evidence suggests that the discovery of DNA was the end result of the work of two teams: Watson and Crick at Cambridge and Wilkins and Franklin at King’s College (note that Franklin had vast differences in both personality and behavior). Wilkins’ scientific point of view, resulting in the two conducting separate experiments), and that without Franklin’s work, no one would have had to “take a step” to find the structure of the double helix.

This fact further highlights Franklin’s important contribution, since she was the only one so skilled in X-ray crystallography. It would therefore be quite impossible for her to be the only one not to understand what Figure 51 was showing, which Watson ( much more inexperienced in X-ray crystallography) understood immediately.

Characteristically, Watson and Crick themselves had admitted in a paper they published in 1954 describing the detailed structure of the DNA double helix that “we could never have modeled the double helix without its elements.” It is also revealing that Franklin’s notes found by the two “detective” professors about a 1951 seminar indicated that she had understood the helical shape of DNA.

James Watson and Francis Crick. New evidence suggests that the discovery of DNA was the end result of the work of Wilkins and Franklin (Getty Images)

The evidence also suggests that Franklin likely knew the image would find its way into the eyes of the Cambridge team, seeing it as a natural consequence of his finding being further scrutinized by others trying to piece together the DNA puzzle. She was very good at his job (Crick had mentioned that she was much better at experiments than he was), but his job was not to study the basics of DNA.

So I didn’t know how to pair them to get the correct result (I didn’t know that adenine only pairs with thymine and guanine with cytosine, something even Watson and Crick didn’t know at the beginning until the end of their research).

Photograph 51 was not enough

And we come to… the infamous photograph 51. As the new data proves, it was not the one that made the difference in describing the structure of DNA. After all, it was impossible to derive the entire structure of the molecule of life from a single image. It turns out that other data that Franklin and Wilkins had extracted through numerous experiments formed the basis for the detailed description of the double helix. And Watson and Crick accessed this data without giving credit to those to whom it belonged in their first paper.

Franklin couldn’t solve the puzzle on his own because, at least in part, the problem was that he was working in isolation and didn’t have a colleague to share ideas with (obviously, poor relations with Wilkins didn’t help). She was also excluded from the informal data exchange that Watson and Crick were engaged in. She was a woman who fought among men (which even today, 70 years later, has not changed much in the field of science as in many other fields).

The importance of restoring the truth

Restoring the truth about Franklin’s contribution to the discovery of DNA is extremely important, the two professors write in closing. And that’s because Rosalind Franklin is a strong role model for many women who choose to pursue careers in science.

So Franklin wasn’t a scientist who had the solution to one of the greatest puzzles before her and couldn’t see it, until her…dignified male colleague did. She likewise “built” the great discovery (and one wonders how many more important “scientific buildings” she would have built if the thread of her life had not been cut off so prematurely).

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