Friday, April 06, 2007

The Double Helix

Biologist James Dewey Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA (with Francis Crick) and co-winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, was born on this day in 1928 in Chicago, Illinois.

Watson grew up in an intellectually curious household and was enough of a brainpower show-off as a youngster to be featured on the Quiz Kids NBC radio show. He studied zoology at Chicago but formed an obsession with genetics, overcoming his fear of organic chemistry long enough to get his doctorate at Indiana University in 1950 under Hermann Muller studying bacteriophages -- viruses which multiply inside bacteria. He went to Copenhagen on a fellowship, and in 1951 attended a lecture in Naples by Maurice Wilkins in which Wilkins described his use of X-ray crystallography in studying DNA.

Armed with his insights on bacteriophages and, from Wilkins, the revelation that genes could crystallize, Watson joined the Cavendish Lab at Cambridge, where he met physicist Francis Crick. Watson was just 23 and Crick was 35, but Watson quickly earned Crick's respect as an uncompromising investigator with skills which complemented his own. Working together, they anonymously entered the feverish international race to discover the structure of DNA which captivated famous scientists such as Linus Pauling. As Crick and Watson built cardboard models of the DNA molecule, it was Watson who first articulated the similarity between the structure of two base pairs of nucleotides within DNA -- the adenine-thymine pair which was held together by two hydrogen bonds, and the guanine-cytosine pair also held together by hydrogen bonds.

Building upon that insight, Crick and Watson developed a model of the structure of DNA which suggested the means of replication which would be an essential process within chromosomal heredity, and they published their model in Nature (Apr. 1953).

Shortly thereafter, Watson left Cambridge for the California Institute of Technology, and later Harvard. In 1965 he published what became the standard work on molecular biology, The Molecular Biology of the Gene, and 3 years later wrote a best-selling memoir of his role in discovering the structure of DNA, The Double Helix. (The story was the basis for a TV movie, in which Jeff Goldblum starred as Watson.)

After running the Cold Spring Harbor Lab on Long Island, where his group discovered ras, the "oncogene" that causes cancer, Watson became the head of the Office of Human Genome Research at the National Institutes of Health, leading the effort to chart all 50-100,000 genes within the human genome. After a stormy tenure there, he resigned in 1992 and was succeeded by Francis Collins.



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