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Geek Trivia: Double (helix) trouble

What shape did Watson and Crick originally propose for the structure of DNA?

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In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick submitted a letter to the scientific journal Nature that began with these understated words: "We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest." The aforementioned structure, of course, is the now famous double helix.

Watson and Crick encountered miscues, infighting among scientists, and blatant disregard for established research protocol on the path to this discovery. Indeed, when they finally cracked the shape of DNA in 1953, both had conducted their research to the neglect of other projects.

After having previously embarrassed their Cambridge University superiors by unveiling an incorrect, chemically impossible model of DNA, their supervisors told Watson and Crick in no uncertain terms that they were not to pursue DNA research any further. According to Watson and Crick's superiors, either sanctioned Kings College researchers—including rival scientist Rosalind Franklin—or the U.S.'s Linus Pauling, widely considered the foremost biochemist on the planet, would be the ones to unravel the secret of DNA.

Ironically, Pauling himself would surmise the same, incorrect shape of DNA (though with critical structural differences) in his own research.


What shape did James Watson and Francis Crick originally propose for DNA before finally arriving at the double helix structure in 1953?

In late 1951, more than a year before the pair would happen upon the correct structure of DNA, Watson and Crick unveiled a model of DNA shaped as a triple helix. They based the mockup on crystallographic research from the two's talented rival, Rosalind Franklin, but Watson had incorrectly observed the amount of water that the DNA molecule contained.

As a result, the duo's first model contained far too little water and would not have bonded properly to maintain its internal structure. While their first model's specifics were blatantly nonviable, the idea of a triple helix was nonetheless compelling to other scientists.

Linus Pauling's research team was preparing its own triple helix model—one it shared with Watson and Crick shortly before the latter duo published their double helix model in Nature. Indeed, Watson and Crick went out of their way to mention—and dispute—in their original introductory letters to Nature, the popularity of the triple helix model.

Despite his mistakes regarding the triple helix, Pauling figured prominently in Watson and Crick's successful deciphering of the DNA double helix. Pauling advocated the use of toy-like model kits to demonstrate chemical structures.

And indeed, legend has it that Watson cobbled together the first correct model of DNA from cardboard scraps, simply to prove his sudden inspiration of the double helix correct—a method of proof that both Watson and Crick credit to Pauling.

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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