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Francis Crick's Nobel prize and DNA letter sold for millions

15 April 2013

By Dr Shanya Sivakumaran

Appeared in BioNews 700

The Nobel prize won by Francis Crick, a British scientist, for his part in the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, and a handwritten letter recounting this discovery to his 12-year-old son, have been sold for more than $8 million this week.

The seven page letter to his son Michael, dated 19 March 1953, sold for $6 million to an anonymous buyer in an auction brokered by auctioneers Christie's. The sale exceeded the pre-sale estimate value of $1-2 million and has set the record value for a letter sold at auction.

The letter outlines the ideas of the double-helix structure, base-pair combinations and genetic replication – 'the copying mechanism by which life comes from life', which would later be published in Nature (April and May 1953). Crick wrote 'our structure is very beautiful' and includes a sketch of the double helix, which he admits he cannot draw very well. He ends the letter telling his son, who was away at boarding school: 'Read this carefully so that you understand it. When you come home we will show you the model. Lots of love, Daddy'.

The Nobel prize medal, struck in 23-karat gold, was auctioned by Heritage Auctions and sold for $2.27 million. The buyer was Jack Wang, chief executive of Biomobie, a company with offices in Shanghai, China and California, USA, which aims to sell electromagnetic devices it claims can activate regeneration of aged and damaged organs.

Crick, who died in 2004, received the Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine together with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins in 1962, for 'their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material'.

Other memorabilia in the Heritage auction included Crick's Nobel prize check and his old lab coat bearing the initials F.H.C. and complete with stains.

Half the proceeds from the Christie's sale will benefit the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California, USA (where Crick spent 27 years after leaving Cambridge) and 20 percent of the proceeds from the Heritage Auctions sale will go to the new Francis Crick Institute in London, UK, an interdisciplinary medical research institute due to open in 2015. As Crick's granddaughter, Kindra, told Nature: 'It's a win for science'.

The worldwide attention received by the auctions has highlighted the continued importance of the findings 60 years on. The letter to his son began with Crick remarking, 'Jim Watson and I have probably made a most important discovery' - he was soon after proved to be correct.

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