Unstacking life's building blocks

On April 25, 1953 a short paper was published in the journal Nature, by two Cambridge scientists, announcing the discovery of the structure of DNA.

The paper, which runs at fewer than 1,000 words, puts forward the discovery by James Watson and Francis Crick (with colleagues Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin), that DNA consists of two helical chains coiled around each other in a twisting ladder shape. Their discovery would lead to incredible advances in medicine, synthetic biology, genetic modification and agriculture.

Watson and Crick

Profound implications

The discovery of the structure of DNA in Cambridge, led to the understanding of DNA base pairs, then genes and heredity - the passing on of genetic information from parent to child. With implications as far-reaching as personalised medicine for those with serious or chronic illnesses, to the safe modification of food to make it more nutritious for those in developing countries, the unravelling of DNA in the heart of Cambridge was profound.

The discovery of the structure of DNA in Cambridge, led to the understanding of DNA base pairs, then genes and heredity - the passing on of genetic information from parent to child.

How does DNA work?

DNA is like a blueprint for a living thing, whether that’s a flower, a jellyfish or President Barack Obama. Contained inside the two strands are base pairs, genetic codes which tell other parts of a cell what kind of protein to make. Proteins are made from amino acids, and are the foundation, or ‘building blocks’ of all living things.

The process for making a liver, for example, goes a little something like this:

  • Inside a cell’s nucleus, a small part of a DNA sequence is replicated
  • This new structure is known as RNA
  • The RNA travels out into the cell where the amino acids are stored
  • A structure called a ribosome reads the RNA code, and arranges the amino acids accordingly
  • Once arranged, the amino acids form proteins, which go on to form cells, and eventually a liver

What does Crick and Watson’s work mean for global health?

As we mentioned, the discovery of the structure of DNA led to advances in our understanding of how genes work, and how the presence or absence of certain genes can affect a person’s chances of developing certain hereditary diseases.

Gene therapy is another promising area of medicine, which owes some of its success to the discovery of DNA’s structure.

For example, conditions such as cystic fibrosis and Parkinson’s disease have been noted for centuries, but with more research taking place into the genes which cause them, we’re moving ever closer to cures.

Gene therapy is another promising area of medicine, which owes some of its success to the discovery of DNA’s structure. In cancer, for example, gene therapy may be able to attack offending cells from within, using a treatment tailored specifically for that person.

As our command over DNA and genes becomes more refined, we are able to introduce new fruits and vegetables to developing countries, which have higher nutritional value and could save lives.

The history and implications of our understanding of DNA and genetics is complex, and the work of Watson, Crick, Wilkins and Franklin was one of many groundbreaking steps in our evolution.

Explore further

The importance of discovering DNA's structure
Meet Watson and Crick
Watson and Crick in the Guardian
Watson and Crick's paper in Nature

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