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James Watson

The Structure Of Dna

Luria arranged for Watson to continue his work at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England, which was a center for the study of biomolecular structure, and Watson arrived there in late 1951. At the Cavendish, he met Francis Crick, who, after training in physics, had turned his attention to similar structural questions. The two hit it off, and began collaborating on the structure of DNA.

Watson and Crick approached the problem by building models of the four nucleotides known to make up DNA. Each was composed of a sugar called deoxyribose, a phosphate group, and one of four bases, called ade-nine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine. They knew the sugars and phosphates alternated to form a chain, with the bases projecting off to the side. The X-ray images they had seen suggested the structure was a helix, and offered more information about dimensions as well. They also knew that the biochemist Erwin Chargaff had discovered that the amounts of adenine and thymine in a cell's DNA were equal, as were the amounts of cytosine and guanine.

After several failed attempts, more analysis of the X-ray images, and a fortuitous conversation with a biochemist who corrected one of their hypothesized base structures, they developed the correct model. The helix is formed from two opposing strands of sugar phosphates, while the bases project into the center. Weak bonding (called hydrogen bonding) between bases holds them together. The key, as Watson and Crick discovered, was that the hydrogen bonds work best when adenine pairs with thymine, and guanine with cytosine, thus explaining Chargaff's ratios. The structure immediately suggested a replication mechanism, in which each side serves as the template for the formation of a new copy of the opposing side, and they speculated, correctly, that the sequence of the bases was a code for the sequence of amino acids in proteins. They published their results in 1953, and received the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine for it 1962, along with Wilkins (Franklin by then had died, and was therefore ineligible for the prize).

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Medicine EncyclopediaGenetics in Medicine - Part 4James Watson - Early Life And Training, The Structure Of Dna, Later Accomplishments