The Race Begins

In 1951, three teams of molecular biologists, one in the United States and two in Britain, accepted their blindfolds and began the race to find the structure of DNA. Chemist Linus Pauling, at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), led the U.S. group. Pauling had already become famous for working out the basic structure of protein molecules, which had also proved to be a helix.

One of the British groups was at King's College in London. Maurice Wilkins, a biophysicist from New Zealand, was its leader. British chemist Rosalind Franklin, an expert in X-ray crystallography, was among those who worked with him. Wilkins and Franklin, both brilliant scientists, did not get along with each other.

Just the opposite was true of the third team, a pair of researchers at Cambridge, one of Britain's two most famous universities. One of the duo was American, the other British. The United States scientist, James Dewey Watson, was the younger of the two. Born in Chicago on April 6, 1928, Watson entered the University of Chicago as part of a special program when he was only 15 years old. At first he planned to study birds, but by the time he obtained his B.S. in zoology in 1947, physicist Erwin Schrodinger's book What Is Life? had drawn his interest to genetics and the possibility that certain molecules might carry genetic information. Watson did graduate work on the genetics of viruses at Indiana University in Bloomington, receiving his Ph.D. in 1950.

While doing further study in Europe, Watson met Maurice Wilkins in spring 1951. Watson was already "obsessed," as he later put it, with DNA, and he believed that the DNA molecule's structure would hold the key to the way genes convey inherited information. When Wilkins told him that DNA could be studied by X-ray crystallography, Watson realized that this meant that DNA had regular, or repeated, features in its structure. Current Biography Yearbook 1990 quotes Watson as saying he became convinced that the shape of a DNA molecule would be "simple as well as pretty."

In fall 1951, Watson, then 23 years old, joined the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, where scientists were using X-ray crystallography to study protein molecules. There he met 35-year-old British scientist Francis Harry Compton Crick. Born on June 8, 1916, in Northampton, England, to a shoe manufacturer and his wife, Crick still did not have his Ph.D. at the time he met Watson. The British scientist had received a B.S. in physics from University College, London, in 1937, but World War II had interrupted his scientific career. When he began his schooling once more, he found his interests turning toward biology.

"I . . . immediately discovered the fun of talking to Francis Crick," Watson's Current Biography profile quotes him as saying. Crick, for his part, wrote in his autobiography, What Mad Pursuit:

Jim and I hit it off immediately, partly because our interests were astonishingly similar and partly, I suspect, because a certain youthful arrogance, a ruthlessness, and an impatience with sloppy thinking came naturally to both of us.

The most important interest the two men shared was in DNA. They were sure that discovering its structure would make them famous—if they could find the key to the puzzle before the King's College or the Caltech team did.

Watson and Crick tried to solve their scientific problem mostly by thinking and talking. They also built models that showed possible molecular structures, just as Linus Pauling had done when working out the structure of proteins. The models let them see and manipulate possible structures for the DNA molecule in three dimensions.

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