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Event Review: Unravelling the Double Helix

12 August 2019
Appeared in BioNews 1010

So, you think Watson and Crick discovered DNA? I did too, until I attended a talk by Professor Gareth Williams at the Royal Institution, called 'Unravelling the Double Helix'.

The event itself was superb and the information presented was clearly well-researched. I had expected a lot of science and jargon, but it was more a historical take on events that led to the famous discovery, which made it easy to follow.

Professor Williams is the former dean of medicine at Bristol University and is a popular science writer. The event was a brief summary of his new book, entitled 'Unravelling the Double Helix: The Lost Heroes of DNA.' Professor Williams was clearly passionate about the subject and I found that rubbed off on me, as I went home eager to tell everyone what I had learned.

As you might expect, the event began with a very brief overview of DNA and what the 'double helix' actually is - the structure formed by two strands of DNA, which is held together by pairs of bases. The sequence of these bases forms the foundation of the genetic code. Beyond this, the talk did not go into detail about DNA or its functions.

Professor Williams explained that the discovery of the double helix is a classic tale of 'history told by the victors'. The aim of his presentation was to highlight the many other people who were involved but have been forgotten, or 'airbrushed out' of the story. This was done using two key themes: the first of these was 'what Watson and Crick didn't do' and the second was about the 'lost heroes' of the story.

Most people know that Dr James Watson and Dr Francis Crick won the Nobel Prize in 1962 for discovering the structure of the double helix. Some people are also aware that there was a third person who shared that Nobel Prize, namely Dr Maurice Wilkins. However, everyone I have since spoken to has been very surprised to learn that Dr Watson and Dr Crick did not in fact discover everything we think they did.

The first thing Dr Watson and Dr Crick did not do, was discover DNA. This had been known about since 1868 and was isolated by a man called Dr Friedrich Miescher. Professor Williams went into details about Dr Miescher's life, which really made the story come alive, so that what could easily have come across as mundane lab experiments, was actually quite gripping!

Drs Watson and Crick also did not prove that genes are made of DNA, or that certain bases always pair together. The final point mentioned - and in my opinion, the most shocking - was that Dr Watson and Dr Crick did not present any experimental results, or data, as evidence in the 1953 Nature paper that won them the Nobel Prize.

Data was published in the same journal that Dr Watson and Dr Crick's paper appeared in, but it was from a group at King's College London. Drs Watson and Crick falsely claimed to have no prior knowledge of that data. Dr Rosalind Franklin was part of the team at King's and unfortunately did not get the credit she deserved at the time, despite her X-ray photographs being a direct contribution to the field.

My favourite from the 'lost heroes' part of the talk was the description of Dr Sven Furberg. Professor Williams explained that this man had suspected that DNA had a helical structure and provided a pencil sketch of this in his PhD thesis in 1949, years before Watson and Crick's famous discovery.

The only criticism I have of the event was that I came away slightly confused as to what Drs Watson and Crick did do. Professor Williams never suggested that they did not deserve the Nobel Prize, so it would have been nice to hear a little more of his opinion on their contributions.

All the points made during the talk were put into context and illustrated in a way that made it easy for everyone to understand. For example, hydrogen bonding was described as a handshake when compared with covalent bonding, which was described as a pair of handcuffs. On the other hand, there was also enough history involved to keep the attention of audience members already knowledgeable about DNA.

The event made me realise just how cut-throat the world of academic research can be. From now on, I will be more cautious when reading accounts of history written by those who were directly involved - such as Dr Watson's popular autobiographical account of how the double helix was discovered.

Overall, the talk felt like an evening of entertainment, where I just happened to come away having learned an awful lot about a story I previously assumed I knew well. Until the event I had not heard of Professor Williams, but I am keen to read his previous work and will keep my eye out for similar events at the Royal Institution in future.

The event was filmed and will be available on the Royal Institution's YouTube channel within a few months and I would encourage anyone interested to watch the talk, as there were a lot of fascinating details that I have not been able to cover here.

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