TAIPEI, TAIWAN, May 2nd, 2023- On the 70th anniversary of the publication of the seminal paper detailing the discovery of the DNA double helix by James Watson and Francis Crick, new evidence suggests that Rosalind Franklin, a physical chemist working at King’s College London, was an equal contributor to the discovery.
The evidence includes previously unstudied notes and a draft news article from 1953 written in consultation with Franklin and meant for Time magazine. The new evidence is important because it corrects the story of a pioneering female scientist, providing a more accurate representation of her contribution to science and a more diverse view of science in general.
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Rosalind Franklin worked on the structure of DNA in the early 1950s. Her work on X-ray crystallography of DNA molecules was conducted while she was working as a research associate at King's College in London. She focused on the crystalline A form of DNA, while her colleague Maurice Wilkins focused on the paracrystalline B form. Her focus on the A form was logical from a chemist's perspective, but it ignored the fact that the wet environment inside cells would make the B form more relevant.
Franklin's insistence on fully analyzing the diffraction data before any modeling was attempted also slowed progress. In the end, her data and images were critical in helping James Watson and Francis Crick develop their model of the DNA double helix structure, which was published in 1953. Unfortunately, Franklin passed away in 1958 and was not recognized for her contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA until after her death.
Franklin actually differentiated between the A and B forms of DNA, solving a problem that had confused previous researchers. She also determined the C2 symmetry exhibited by the DNA unit cell. Franklin realized independently that DNA could specify proteins and that any sequence of bases was possible, but she did not understand complementary base-pairing, which Watson and Crick discovered later.
Franklin did not succeed in discovering the double helix structure, in part because she worked on her own and was excluded from the informal exchanges in which Watson and Crick were involved. Nevertheless, her data provided a powerful corroboration of the Watson-Crick model.
One more piece of evidence revealed that an unpublished article by journalist Joan Bruce sheds new light on the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. Bruce's article presented a "two-team" model of the discovery, with Wilkins and Franklin working on experimental evidence using X-ray analysis, and Watson and Crick developing the theoretical model.
Bruce's account suggested that the teams worked independently but linked up to confirm each other's work and that Franklin played a critical role in checking the structural theory. However, the article was never published, and the discovery was later remembered as a race won by Watson and Crick, with Franklin often portrayed as a victim. The article's unpublished account provides a more nuanced view of the discovery and underscores Franklin's role as an equal contributor to the solution of the structure.
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