April 25, 1953: James Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and Rosalind Franklin publish a series of scientific studies that detail the nature and structure of the heretofore little understood double-helix DNA.
Fast forward fifty years: the Human Genome Project celebrates its successful completion, paying homage to those scientists of old that made this monumental achievement possible.
Now, as April 25th approaches once more, we prepare to celebrate the anniversary of this landmark event and how it has led to further research and understanding of human genetics as a whole in the form of the aptly named National DNA Day.
To appreciate just how important this day is, first we should take a step back and look at the struggles that occurred before those scientists in 1953 could release their world-altering findings.
Rosalind Franklin, born in Sussex, England, in 1920, is responsible for much of the scientific legwork that led to the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure. She was granted a three year fellowship to conduct research at King’s College London, where, alongside Maurice Wilkins and Raymond Gosling, she used her expertise as an X-ray crystallographer to delve into the mysteries of the DNA strand.
Tensions ran high, however, between the outspoken Franklin and the shy, reserved Wilkins, and their research focus split into different groups. In some ways, this increased rivalry led to even greater strides in their respective research, but also eventually led to Franklin’s suppression in the initial renown that resulted from DNA research breakthroughs.
Eventually, Francis Crick and James Watson were the first to build a working DNA model and were given a great deal of credit. The pair failed to mention where much of the framework for their “discovery” came from, but all the same, the double helix theory was out, and the scientific world was champing at the bit to discover more.
Over the next fifty years, the study of DNA became an international effort, culminating in the Human Genome Project that has vastly increased our working knowledge of human genetics, which opens further doors into research on the structure of human evolution and the development of medical knowledge aimed at treating maladies based on an individual’s unique genetic structure.
In another fifty years, who knows what will come about? Until then, we celebrate National DNA Day as a reminder of where we humans come from – right down to the genetic core.