May 28, 2023

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DNA Discovery: Was Rosalind Franklin Really the Victim of Science Theft?

With her research, the brilliant British scientist Rosalind Franklin made a decisive contribution to the definition of the double helix structure of DNA: however, it was said that her data were taken away by James Watson and Francis Crick, who thanks to the photographs obtained by Franklin and the adoption of this discovery by winning, in 1962 Medicine Nobel Prize. Is this correct? Until today we thought so, but things could have turned out a little differently.

Not a victim, but a co-author. 70 years after the double helix model was proposed natures From Watson and Crick, historians of science say they believe Rosalind Franklin had it deliberately shared Her hunch with colleagues later won the Nobel Prize, and that her observations were indeed necessary to confirm the hypotheses of the duo of scientists: she must therefore be taken as co-discoverer on equal terms with respect to Watson and Crick, who never give her credit.

Thus, there is no data theft, but that does not make the version of events reported by Watson any less dangerous, in which Rosalind Franklin recognized not only scientific merit, but even free will to dispose of her deductions as she wanted.

Subjective testimony. The most widespread version of the story of this discovery is consolidated thanks to the biography of James Watson – double helix — published in 1968. In the book, the scientist tells of his use of the data of Rosalind Franklin (whom he pejoratively calls “Rosie”) without her colleague knowing about it.

The story features a brilliant scientist who makes an effort to obtain the clearest pictures of DNA by exploiting a technology X-ray crystallography, but he was unable to infer salient features of the molecule’s structure from his own data. The idea that passed was that Franklin lingered for months in front of an iconic image of a DNA molecule – the so-called Photo 51 —without understanding its meaning, which Watson nevertheless managed to grasp at a single glance, and reached out to post the “solution” in front of his colleague.

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normal exchange of data. Matthew Cope, the zoologist and historian at the University of Manchester who is writing a biography of Francis Crick, and Nathaniel Comfort, the medical historian at Johns Hopkins who is writing one of James Watson, have consulted on their work some hitherto ignored documents in the Rosalind Franklin archives at Churchill College. , Cambridge, and used it to rebuild its workflow.

The two tests Type Cobb and Comfort in naturesTurns out, the scientist knew Watson and Crick had access to her data and that she shouldn’t have objected, because she and Maurice Wilkins, the molecular biologist who won the Nobel Prize with Watson and Crick, were all working on the structure of nucleic acids in parallel.

Four scientists. By the early 1950s, it was clear that DNA had been found in every cell examined, but its structure and function were not yet thoroughly understood.

Watson and Crick, colleagues at the University of Cambridge (UK), were mostly busy reconstructing models of the molecule, while Franklin and Wilkins, at nearby King’s College London, were tackling the question from an experimental point of view, using X to get DNA. the pictures.

No problem. More significant than photo 51 is the page where Franklin describes his work in a Medical Research Council (MRC) report. These observations by Franklin, which are crucial because they confirm the double helix model of DNA, were passed on to Francis Crick by his supervisor at Cambridge, Max Perutz.

Cobb and Comfort managed to show a letter written in January 1953 in which Pauline Cowan, a scientist at King’s College, invited Crick to a symposium given by Franklin and his doctoral student Raymond Gosling (author of photo 51). In the letter, Cowan wrote that Perutz may already have known more than could have been covered in the presentation, and so it may not have been appropriate for Crick to be involved.

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So it seems clear that Rosalind Franklin knew very well that Perutz had shared her data with Crick, and was fine with it.

The error? It hasn’t happened yet. The two historians also found a draft of an article that was never published for the American Review time about the discovery of the structure of the double helix, in which the searches are not described as a “competition” but as the result of the work of two teams (Watson Creek and Franklin Wilkins) who advanced simultaneously and were sometimes confronted with each other.

In fact, other evidence also indicates that Rosalind Franklin did not experience anger. Throughout her short life, which ended in 1958 and she is only 37 years old due to cancer, the scientist remained on good terms with Crick and his wife, who also frequented her outside of work.

early disappearance. The new version of events is not detracted from the fact that Rosalind Franklin was not recognized for her work, neither by Watson and Crick nor by the Nobel Assembly.

Chemistry did not live long enough to see her scientific efforts recognized—not even those on the structure of viruses, which should have merited a separate Nobel Prize—nor to attend the awards ceremony for the three male colleagues, let alone read the (certainly biased) biography of Watson.