DNA double helix

Who were Watson and Crick? What is the relative role of competition and cooperation in scientific research?


James Watson ( 1928 – )


James Dewey Watson was born in Chicago, April 6th, 1928. In 1947, he received a Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology. During the developed a serious desire to learn genetics. This became possible when in 1950, he received a Fellowship for graduate study in Zoology at Indiana University, where he received his Ph.D. degree in Zoology.Watson was greatly influenced both by the geneticists H.J. Muller and T. M. Sonneborn. From September 1950 to September 1951 he spent his first years after graduating in Copenhagen. Part of that year, he was with the biochemist Herman Kalckar, the other part was with the microbiologist Ole Maaløe. Once more, he worked with bacterial viruses, attempting to study the fate of DNA of infecting virus particles. During the spring of 1951, he went with Herman Kalckar to the Zoological Station at Naples, where at a Symposium he met Maurice Wilkins and saw for the first time the X-ray diffraction pattern of crystalline DNA. This encouraged him to change the direction of his research toward the structural chemistry of nucleic acids and proteins. Fortunately, this all became possible when Alexander Luria, a Soviet neuropsychologist and developmental psychologist, in early August 1951, arranged with John Kendrew, an English biochemist and crystallographer, for Watson to work at the Cavendish Laboratory, in October 1951.

Francis Crick ( 1916 – 2004 )


Francis Harry Compton Crick was born in  Northampton, England, June 8th, 1916. He studied physics at University College, London, obtained a Bachelor of Science in 1937. He soon started research for a Ph.D. under Edward Neville da Costa Andrade, an English physicist, poet and writer, but this was interrupted by the start of World War I in 1939. During the war he worked as a scientist for the British Admiralty, working with magnetic and acoustic mines. In 1947, he left the Admiralty to study biology. In 1947, Crick knew no biology and practically no organic chemistry or crystallography, so the next few years he spent learning the elements of these subjects. During this period, together with W. Cochran and V. Vand he worked out the general theory of X-ray diffraction by a helix, and at the same time as L. Pauling and R. B. Corey, suggested that the alpha-keratin pattern was due to alpha-helices coiled round each other. Crick went to Cambridge and worked at the Strangeways Research Laboratory. In 1949, he joined the Medical Research Council Unit lead by M.F Perutz, an Austrian-born British molecular biologist. Crick became a research student for the second time in 1950, when he was accepted into Caius College, Cambridge, and finally obtained his Ph.D. During the years 1953-1954, Crick was on leave of absence at the Protein Structure Project of the Brooklyn Polytechnic in Brooklyn, New York. He has also lectured at Harvard, as a Visiting Professor, on two occasions, and has visited other laboratories in the USA for short periods.

James Watson and Francis Crick soon met and discovered their common interest in solving the DNA structure. Their friendship began in 1951, and soon became a critical influence to each other’s careers. Watson and Crick worked together on studying the structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the molecule that contains the hereditary information for cells. Working at Cambridge University, their approach was to make physical models to narrow down the possibilities and eventually create an accurate picture of the molecule. Meanwhile at King’s College in London, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin were also studying DNA taking an experimental approach, using X-ray diffraction to study DNA.

Later in 1951, Watson attended a lecture by Franklin on her work. She had found that DNA can exist in 2 forms, depending on the humidity in the surrounding air. This had helped her deduce that the phosphate part of the molecule was on the outside.Watson returned to Cambridge with an obscure memory of the facts she had presented. Based on this information, Watson and Crick made a failed model. It caused the head of their unit to tell them to stop DNA research. Nevertheless, they persisted on their work.

Franklin, working mostly alone, found that her x-ray diffractions showed that the “wet” form of DNA (in the higher humidity) had all the characteristics of a helix. She suspected that all DNA was helical. In January, 1953, Wilkins showed Franklin’s results to Watson, apparently without her knowledge or consent. Watson and Crick took a crucial theoretical step, suggesting the molecule was made of two chains of nucleotides, each in a helix as Franklin had found, but one going up and the other going down. Crick had just learned of Chargaff’s rule (DNA from any cell of all organisms should have a 1:1 ratio base pair rule of pyrimidine and purine bases and, that the amount of guanine is equal to cytosine and the amount of adenine is equal to thymine) in the summer of 1952. He added that to the model, so that matching base pairs interlocked in the middle of the double helix to keep the distance between the chains constant. Watson and Crick showed that each strand of the DNA molecule was a template for the other.

This second effort, in March 1953, resulted in the proposal of the molecular DNA structure: a complementary double-helix configuration. The structure so perfectly fit the experimental data that it was basically immediately accepted. Their model served to explain how DNA replicates and how hereditary information is coded on it. This was a base for the rapid advances in molecular biology that continue to this day.

As a result of their discovery: Watson, Crick and Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1962. Franklin had died in 1958 and, despite her key experimental work, the prize could not be received posthumously. Crick and Watson both received numerous other awards and prizes for their work.

The roles of cooperation and competition are very present and essential to scientific research and it’s development.

Competition in scientific research is when scientists are working by themselves to prove a theory, trying to release their correct and final results before another scientist. It allows for scientific research to progress at a faster rate because everyone wants to be the first, allowing for the advancement of science to increment. All scientists want to reach their goal and receive recognition in their field, knowing that they were the first ones to accomplish what once was impossible or undiscovered. Competition influences scientific research by urging the individual to strive for the best, keep focused and give the finest results. If there were no competition, people would not be passionate or have the curiosity and urge to discover new things.

Nevertheless, competition does have its downside since it can cause scientists to create small, undetected errors due to their rush to reach the “finish line” first, making their work be invalidated. Also, labs now have an incredibly high security in order for no one else to get their results or use their work. This leads to scientists behaving in unfair and compromising ways if they decide to steal a colleague’s information or doesn’t credit their work. As a consequence, rather than competition help in the advancement of scientific research it delays it since information isn’t as free-flowing and scientists are achieving success by unfair measures.

Cooperation in scientific research is when a group of people (scientists) work together to prove theory or work on something they all have an interest in. It is important in scientific research, because it helps scientists develop the skill of group work. In a way, it forces scientists to working with one another and cooperate, they have to share their thoughts and information acquired, expanding and spreading the passage of knowledge. This helps scientific progression as people acquire more knowledge when working together and there are many different ideas and perspective to consider. Cooperation is one of the surest ways to achieve a goal the fastest and complete the scientific research, as well as have good results that are very accurate since many people are checking the work and there is more than one perspective.

Nevertheless, within a group of people, the balance of power is not always equal. Some people will not be listened to as much as the others. This means injustice is present when trying to achieve the goal and it might take longer since that person might have the answer but the others are not listening to their input. If there is no trust when cooperating, many conflicts are sure to ensue and if one scientist commits a mistake, the whole group is at fault and everyone will suffer from the consequences.

For scientific research to work efficiently, both competition (creativity and striving for the best) and cooperation (team-work, and multiple ideas) need to be present in order for the research to have a successful result.

The insight, innovation, and persistence of James Watson, Francis Crick, Rosalind Franklin, and Maurice Wilkins helped unlock one of the great secrets of life (a detailed understanding of the structure of DNA). This discovery brought together information that was produced through them working together and using each other’s ideas in order to arrive to their final result: the DNA structure.

They were able to determine the following about nature of science:

  • Science can test hypothesis 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

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