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The structure of DNA
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  The structure of DNA: Cooperation and competition
by the Understanding Science team

the story of DNA
During the early 1950s, the intellectual journeys of a bird biologist, an expert on the structure of coal, a designer of underwater mines, and a nuclear physicist intersected, resulting — not in a submarine explosion of feathers, as one might expect — but in a discovery that offered a glimpse of the molecular mechanisms that underlie all life, paving the way for a revolution in molecular biology. The insight, innovation, and persistence of James Watson, Rosalind Franklin, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins led to a detailed understanding of the structure of DNA, the stuff that genes are made of. This discovery brought together information from many disciplines and many researchers to answer one of the most fundamental questions in life science: How do living things pass on traits to their offspring?

This case study highlights the following aspects of the nature of science:

  • Science can test hypotheses about things that are too small for us to observe directly.
  • Science relies on communication within a diverse scientific community.
  • Scientists are expected to give credit where credit is due.
  • Scientific discoveries lead to ongoing research.
This entire section is available as a PDF download.

take a sidetrip
Throughout this story, we'll emphasize the role that community and community expectations play in moving science forward. To review these topics, visit The social side of science.

key points
Use this story to introduce your students to the Science Flowchart. Check out the middle school or high school version of the activity.




Crick and Watson photos from an image courtesy of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Library and Archive, James D. Watson Collection; Franklin photo © Henry Grant Collection / Museum of London; Maurice Wilkins in the lab photo © King's College Archives; Photo of X-ray diffraction pattern courtesy of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Library and Archive, James D. Watson Collection

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