He Unlocked the Structure of DNA

Today we celebrate Francis Crick, a British molecular biologist who was born on June 8, 1916.  Crick is credited for co-discovering that the molecular structure of DNA is a double-helix.

A helix is the shape you get if you wrap a wire around a tube; it ends up shaped like a spiral or coil.  DNA is like a ladder that has been twisted.  Each of the two side “railings” of the ladder forms a helix.  Together, they form a double-helix.

Why is the DNA ladder twisted?  Imagine that each “rung” of the ladder is a toothpick with a marshmallow at each end.  Chains of marshmallows make up the two side “railings” (purple and blue in the illustration).

In reality, the rungs are made up of DNA base pairs that are attracted to each other.  As forces pull the rungs closer together, the ladder starts to collapse.  In order to keep the “marshmallows” (sugars and phosphates) from getting squished, the entire structure twists itself naturally.  Voila!  You have a double helix.

Crick credited his success to two factors.  First was the quality of his teachers.  Crick’s grandfather was an amateur naturalist who corresponded with Charles Darwin.  Crick’s uncle taught him chemistry when he was eight years old.  Crick was further inspired by a grade-school teacher who “made everything interesting.”

The second factor of Crick’s success was that his background was in physics, not biology.  While biology was seen as a fairly daunting field, physics had a long heritage of successful discoveries and advances.  Crick’s background as a physicist gave him a decided lack of modesty.  He was convinced that he could make advances in biology that were just as significant.

Crick was interested in two fundamental questions.  First, what makes a molecule living versus non-living?  Second, how does the brain create consciousness?  The first question led Crick to search for the elusive “genetic molecule,” which turned out to be DNA.

In 1953, Crick and James Watson published their molecular model of DNA.  In 1962, Crick, Watson and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for “their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.”

Agilent genomics solutions are used in the study and analysis of DNA.  Agilent also manufactures synthetic DNA for research purposes; our microarrays can hold 1,000,000 DNA elements on a single slide.


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