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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 WATSON AND CRICK ORIGINALLY PROPOSE FOR THE
STRUCTURE OF DNA?

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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