Last week saw the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of the DNA double helix. On Saturday 28th February 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick told customers drinking at The Eagle pub in Cambridge that they had found 'the secret of life'. Their work, along with that of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins at King's College in London, had revealed the molecular structure of DNA.
Before the discovery, scientists knew that DNA was the hereditary material, but not how it stored and copied genetic information. Working at Cambridge University in the UK, Watson and Crick used their knowledge of the chemical composition of DNA to propose a model of the molecule. X-ray images carried out by Franklin provided further vital information, from which Watson and Crick deduced the double helix: a 'twisted zip' structure. It is now known that the helix 'unzips' whenever the DNA code needs to be copied or read by the cell. 'It was so simple; instantly you could explain this idea to anyone' Watson told the BBC last week.
Watson, Crick and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their achievement, but Franklin died at the age of 37 from ovarian cancer. Recent efforts to recognise her contribution include the Rosalind Franklin Medal, an annual £30,000 award for top women researchers in the UK. James Watson and Francis Crick published their description of DNA on 25 April 1953, in the journal Nature. The fiftieth anniversary of this historic research paper will be marked by a celebration banquet in London, with guests including Watson and Tony Blair. Other events will be held throughout the year, organised by the Medical Research Council (which funded the original work), the Royal Society and Nature.