April 25, 1953 (a Saturday)

James Watson (left) and Francis Crick in 1959.

On this date, James Watson and Francis Crick published an article in the journal Nature describing the structure of DNA in terms of the now-familiar double helix. Watson was working at the Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge, in early October 1952. He met Francis Crick there and they agreed that, working together, they should be able to discover the structure of DNA that had eluded others. Crick brought to the project his knowledge of x-ray diffraction, while Watson brought knowledge of phage and bacterial genetics. In April 1953 they jointly published their theory, complete with a diagram of “two helical chains coiled round the same axis.” Watson (age 25 at the time), was born in Chicago; Crick (age 36 at the time), was born in Northampton, England. Their discovery won them both, with Maurice Wilkins, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962.

Human Genome Project director Francis Collins says, even 50 years later, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of knowing the structure of DNA:

It is so intertwined in every bit of what we do experimentally, in terms of perceiving our own position in the scheme of life on this planet. It has become one of those givens that is so central to your thinking that you stop thinking about it, but if somebody took it away from you, your whole intellectual foundation would collapse, and it would be unimaginable what we would be doing now if we didn’t know about the double helix.

Furthermore, DNA is not just an instruction book for the present and something to pass on to future generations – it is also record of our genetic past. No longer do researchers look for clues to human history merely in fossil bones and stone tools, they also seek “genetic fossils” in the DNA of living peoples.

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