60 years ago today, Nature published an article by Francis Crick and James Watson. It was titled, “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid”. Finally, someone had figured out the structure of DNA. That alone was a worthy achievement, after the years of work put into it. But far more importantly, the structure suggested that DNA could be the genetic material of organisms… it could be how genetic information is passed from one cell to its daughter cells, from one organism to its offspring.
After describing how the base pairs link up in a predictable way (adenine with thymine, guanine with cytosine), the authors wrote what would become the highlight of one of the most famous academic papers of all time, and possibly one of the best examples of arrogant false modesty:
“It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material”.
The rest is history. The genetic code. The Human Genome Project. Blatant sexism in science. You’ll probably be reading a lot about these as we hit the 60th anniversary of the paper. It’s a story worth revisiting, or enjoying for the first time. The work by Watson and Crick is a fantastic story because it involves scientists standing on the shoulders of giants, taking the results of other scientists’ experiments and piecing them together, and answering a huge scientific question with a simple explanation. At the same time, the story of this discovery demonstrates that scientists are people, for better or worse.