The Discovery of DNA Marks a Turning Point in Science

Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA was still relatively new when the Post published this primer on DNA in 1961.


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A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid” wasn’t the sort of title destined to grab the attention of the world’s press. Yet this article, published in Nature magazine on April 25, 1953, marked a turning point in biological science.

In the article, James Watson and Francis Crick described the structure of DNA and theorized how it faithfully reproduced itself in all living cells. Their discovery became the foundation for our modern understanding genetics and heredity.

Watson and Crick’s paper was the culmination of efforts dating back nearly a century. DNA had first been identified in 1869, and its components identified in 1919. A third scientist proved genetic material was carried on DNA in 1943. And in the 1950s, two more scientists’ studies of the DNA’s molecular structure enabled Watson and Crick to propose their double-helix configuration.

Eight years after the Nature article appeared, the Post published “The Messages of Life” by James Bonner, a professor of biology at the California Institute of Technology.

The article doesn’t show its age too obviously. Of course, biogenetics has progressed since 1961. For example, scientists know RNA does far more than simply direct enzyme production, as Bonner described. And researchers are more concerned with DNA’s role in making proteins, not enzymes.

Still, Bonner offers a clear, comprehensible explanation of the foundations of DNA studies and genetic science. If you are still uncertain what DNA does and how it affects your biological inheritance, you couldn’t do better than to read Bonner’s article.


Click to read “The Messages of Life” by James Bonner, from the April 15, 1961, issue of the Post.

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