Francis Crick

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Francis Crick : biography

8 June 1916 – 28 July 2004

Many have speculated about what might have happened had Pauling been able to travel to Britain as planned in May 1952. As it was, his political activities caused his travel to be restricted by the U. S. government and he did not visit the UK until later, at which point he met none of the DNA researchers in England. At any rate he was preoccupied with proteins at the time, not DNA.Chapter 3 in The Eighth Day of Creation by Horace Judson. Watson and Crick were not officially working on DNA. Crick was writing his Ph.D. thesis; Watson also had other work such as trying to obtain crystals of myoglobin for X-ray diffraction experiments. In 1952, Watson did X-ray diffraction on tobacco mosaic virus and found results indicating that it had helical structure. Having failed once, Watson and Crick were now somewhat reluctant to try again and for a while they were forbidden to make further efforts to find a molecular model of DNA.

Of great importance to the model building effort of Watson and Crick was Rosalind Franklin’s understanding of basic chemistry, which indicated that the hydrophilic phosphate-containing backbones of the nucleotide chains of DNA should be positioned so as to interact with water molecules on the outside of the molecule while the hydrophobic bases should be packed into the core. Franklin shared this chemical knowledge with Watson and Crick when she pointed out to them that their first model (from 1951, with the phosphates inside) was obviously wrong.

Crick described what he saw as the failure of Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin to cooperate and work towards finding a molecular model of DNA as a major reason why he and Watson eventually made a second attempt to do so. They asked for, and received, permission to do so from both William Lawrence Bragg and Wilkins. In order to construct their model of DNA, Watson and Crick made use of information from unpublished X-ray diffraction images of Franklin’s (shown at meetings and freely shared by Wilkins), including preliminary accounts of Franklin’s results/photographs of the X-ray images that were included in a written progress report for the King’s College laboratory of Sir John Randall from late 1952.

It is a matter of debate whether Watson and Crick should have had access to Franklin’s results without her knowledge or permission, and before she had a chance to formally publish the results of her detailed analysis of her X-ray diffraction data which were included in the progress report. However, Watson and Crick found fault in her steadfast assertion that, according to her data, a helical structure was not the only possible shape for DNA—so they had a dilemma. In an effort to clarify this issue, Max Ferdinand Perutz later published what had been in the progress report, and suggested that nothing was in the report that Franklin herself had not said in her talk (attended by Watson) in late 1951. Further, Perutz explained that the report was to a Medical Research Council (MRC) committee that had been created in order to "establish contact between the different groups of people working for the Council". Randall’s and Perutz’s laboratories were both funded by the MRC.

It is also not clear how important Franklin’s unpublished results from the progress report actually were for the model-building done by Watson and Crick. After the first crude X-ray diffraction images of DNA were collected in the 1930s, William Astbury had talked about stacks of nucleotides spaced at 3.4 angström (0.34 nanometre) intervals in DNA. A citation to Astbury’s earlier X-ray diffraction work was one of only eight references in Franklin’s first paper on DNA.Franklin’s citation to the earlier work of W. T. Astbury is in: Analysis of Astbury’s published DNA results and the better X-ray diffraction images collected by Wilkins and Franklin revealed the helical nature of DNA. It was possible to predict the number of bases stacked within a single turn of the DNA helix (10 per turn; a full turn of the helix is 27 angströms [2.7 nm] in the compact A form, 34 angströms [3.4 nm] in the wetter B form). Wilkins shared this information about the B form of DNA with Crick and Watson. Crick did not see Franklin’s B form X-ray images (Photo 51) until after the DNA double helix model was published.