In the first blog in our new series on great scientific breakthroughs, we take a look at one of the most groundbreaking scientific discoveries ever made: DNA, the so-called 'molecule of life'.
DNA essentially contains the blue print for life. This vital molecule is found in all living organisms from tiny bacteria to blue whales, and carries genetic information from one generation to the other. It's a commonly held belief that DNA was first discovered by the scientists James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. However in reality, the history of the discovery of DNA is a little more complicated.
DNA was actually first identified back in the 1860's by the Swiss chemist Fredrich Miescher. He discovered an important first piece in the puzzle, namely the compound nuclei which is today called nucleic acid, and forms the "NA" in "DNA". In following decades, a number of other scientists such as Phoebus Levene also undertook pioneering research to uncover further details, regarding DNA.
By the 1940's, scientists understood that DNA contains varying amounts of 4 key components, known as adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine. However what scientists didn't know, was what the DNA molecule looked like, and a key part of the puzzle that remained unsolved was how these individual components of DNA, known as nucleotides, were arranged in space. Many scientists proposed an array of different theories in an attempt to solve this enigma; however a definitive solution to this question remained elusive.
In 1953 James Watson and Francis Crick proposed the first correct, and now accepted double-helix model of DNA. At this time, two other scientists by the name of Maurice Wilkins, and Rosalind Franklin, were also using x-ray diffraction techniques in order to study the structure of the DNA molecule. Watson and Crick drew upon this research to support their own findings. And it was in fact Franklins’ photograph of DNA, the now famous photograph 51which finally revealed the helical structure of DNA to Watson and Crick.
In 1962, Watson, Crick, and Wilkins, were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for their discovery. Unfortunately, Franklin had died in 1958, and despite her key contribution to the understanding of DNA, at this time, Nobel prizes were only awarded to living recipients.
Whilst scientists have made some minor amendments to Watson and Cricks model, since the time of its inception in 1953, the major features of the model remain the same today.
The discovery of DNA was a landmark event and proved to be a real tuning point, ushering in a new era of biological research. It is thanks to the efforts of these researchers that we now know so much more, about life on earth, genetics, and the human genome.
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