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The structure of DNA
page 14 of 14
  DNA then and now
After unraveling the structure of DNA, all four researchers continued to study genetics and molecular biology, although along their separate paths. Wilkins, Watson, and Crick went on to collect additional evidence on DNA's structure, examine how DNA copies itself, and investigate the genetic code inherent in the DNA molecule. Sadly, Franklin's research was cut short when she died of cancer — just five years after the landmark Nature publication. This also meant that Franklin missed out on many of the honors awarded for their discovery, including the possibility of a Nobel Prize — which cannot be awarded posthumously.

Franklin, Watson, Crick, and Wilkins later in life

From left, Rosalind Franklin in 1956, James Watson in the 1980s, Francis Crick in the 1980s, and Maurice Wilkins in the early 1990s. Franklin died in 1958. Both Crick and Wilkins died in 2004.

Despite her early death, Franklin's work, along with that of the others, has earned a permanent place in our accumulated scientific knowledge. Genetic researchers today still build on the foundation laid by these half-century old ideas and findings. If we trace the roots of today's cutting-edge technologies like DNA fingerprinting, genetic engineering, and genome sequencing back in time, we will find ourselves once again in the X-ray diffraction lab at the University of London and tinkering with models at Cambridge. And continuing even further back in time, we'll encounter the community of researchers who set the stage for this discovery by developing X-ray diffraction techniques and by uncovering those first puzzle pieces that inspired Wilkins, Franklin, Watson, and Crick to join the race and chase down the double helix. With many open questions involving DNA, its structure will continue to be a key piece of evidence in many new discoveries yet to come.

The discovery of DNA's structure opened the door to an entire field of genetic research and application.
The discovery of DNA's structure opened the door to an entire field of genetic research and application.

the puzzle is solved
Though the discovery of the structure of DNA is frequently attributed to Watson and Crick, the story behind this discovery highlights just how indebted to other researchers they were. Reliance on the clues discovered by others is a key theme, not just of this story, but of the process of science in general. Science is too big a job and involves too many complex ideas for any one person to tackle a problem in complete isolation. Even the few scientists who work alone on a day-to-day basis rely on the cumulative knowledge of the scientific community as a starting point and contribute their findings to this knowledge base so that others can build upon them. Because of science's collaborative nature, communication — sharing pieces of the puzzle — has played a critical role in many scientific discoveries. As we saw in the race for the structure of DNA, science works not solely through the brilliance and good fortune of a few individuals, but through the work of a diverse community.


Popular and historical accounts:

  • Maddox, B. 2003. The Dark Lady of DNA. London: HarperCollins.
  • Watson, J.D. 1969. The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. New York: Mentar Books.
A few scientific articles:
  • Avery, O.T., C.M. MacLeod, and M. McCarty. 1944. Studies on the chemical nature of the substance inducing transformation of Pneumococcal types. Journal of Experimental Medicine 79:137-159.
  • Franklin, R., and R.G. Gosling. 1953. Molecular configuration in sodium thymonucleate. Nature 171:740-741.
  • Watson, J.D., and F.H.C. Crick. 1953. A structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid. Nature 171:737-738.

take a sidetrip

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.

Photos of James Watson, Francis Crick, and Rosalind Franklin courtesy of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Library and Archive, James D. Watson Collection; Wilkins photo courtesy of TVNZ; grain genetics photo provided by USDA; researcher and PCR photos provided by NIH

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