Peter Pauling and the Discovery of the Double Helix, 1952-1953

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Peter Pauling, 1954.

[The life of Peter Pauling: Part 4 of 9]

With Winter break coming fast and Linus Pauling having apparently solved the structure of DNA, Jim Watson and Francis Crick extinguished any hope of modeling their own structure. Eager to take advantage of a few days off, their Cavendish office mate, Peter Pauling, headed for the continent in the company of a friend whom he described as “a mad Rhodes scholar” who had “wooed” him with his “insane plan” for exploring Europe.

On this trip, which was indeed ambitious, Peter visited Munich, Vienna, Linz, Brussels, Frankfurt, and Bavaria, hitchhiking his way from location to location. Crossing Germany, Peter saw neighborhoods still littered with the rubble of the Second World War, alongside industrious people struggling to rebuild. His mode of travel, he confessed to his mother in a letter, had seemed a better idea when its low cost was his only consideration. In person, however, spending several hours standing in or walking through the snow had a way of changing one’s priorities.

Nonetheless, the whole escapade proved a romantic adventure for the young Peter Pauling. He spent Christmas Eve in a gas house belonging to the director of an iron company somewhere in Leoben, Austria. Resting there and watching the snow fall, he wrote again to his mother:

I look out the window to the lovely white mountains. It is grand. Considering the possibilities, Christmas and your birthday [Ava Helen was born on December 24, 1903] could hardly have been spent in a nicer place. Considering impossibilities, I can think of places where I would much prefer to be. Sometimes it is sad to grow up.


 

[Triple Helix animation and narration created by Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory]

With the arrival of the new year, the Cavendish researchers put their skis away, shook the snow from their coats, and resumed their work.  It wasn’t long into the term before Peter learned, from two letters received in February, that his father was, in fact, having difficulty with some of the van der Waals distances hypothesized to be near the center of his DNA model. In response – and almost as an afterthought – Peter casually asked his father for a manuscript of the DNA proposal, mentioning that his coworkers in Max Perutz’ unit would like to give it a read. Upon receiving the paper, Peter promptly revealed to Watson and Crick that the Pauling-Corey model was a triple helix, a concept similar to one that Watson and Crick had developed themselves – and rejected – back in 1951.

This moment was a major turning point for Watson and Crick, who only then realized that they still had a chance to discover the structure before Linus Pauling. That said, what followed may not have been quite the race as it was made out to be after the fact. At least, Peter Pauling did not see it that way, and the casual manner in which his father interacted with him (and with others at the Cavendish) seems also to belie such a dramatization.


 

[Jim Watson recalls learning of the Pauling-Corey triple helical model. Video created by Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory.]

Near the end of February 1953, while wishing his father a happy birthday, Peter noted that his office still felt that Linus’ structure required sodium to be located somewhere near the oxygens, whose negative charges would have to cancel out to hold the molecule together. “We agree that everything is a little tight,” he said, referring to the small atomic distances between Pauling’s three polynucleotide chains with phosphate groups in the middle.

As communicated in an earlier letter to his son, Linus Pauling had already identified these structural arrangements as a weakness of the model, and he was in the midst of attempting to correct the issue. Peter confided to his father that, at that time, the Cambridge office had nothing better to offer. He added simply that “We were all excited about the nucleic acid structure,” and concluded with his many thanks for the paper.

In response, Linus Pauling asked for updates on any progress that Watson and Crick were making with their own model, and casually requested that Peter also remind Watson that he should arrive for a scheduled protein conference at Caltech by September 20th. Peter clarified only that the Cavendish group had successfully built the Pauling-Corey model and that Watson and Crick had then discarded it, becoming very involved in their own efforts and “losing objectivity.” It would be up to them, Peter said, to communicate the details of their structure. Shortly thereafter, Watson and Crick sent a letter to Linus Pauling, outlining their structure and including the short article that they had submitted for publication in Nature.


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Crystallographic photo of Sodium Thymonucleate, Type B. “Photo 51.” Taken by Rosalind Franklin, May 1952.

It has been well-established that Pauling and Corey made basic errors in their own modeling  of the structure of DNA. But in March 1953, having no knowledge of the x-ray crystallographic photographs of DNA that had been taken by Rosalind Franklin at Kings College, Pauling felt bewildered by the certainty with which Watson and Crick had rejected his triple helical model. Upon learning its details, Pauling agreed that the double helix model was at least as likely, and he considered it to be a beautiful molecular structure, but he could not understand why his own structure was being ruled out entirely.

At the heart of his confusion lay the fact that he did not believe that any x-ray evidence existed that proved that the phosphate groups might somehow be located on the outside, rather than in the core, of the DNA molecule. Pauling did not believe that this evidence existed because he hadn’t seen it yet; crucially, Watson and Crick had. Indeed, from the point of their realization that Pauling had modeled the structure incorrectly, Watson and Crick worked fervently to once again convince Maurice Wilkins to provide them with Rosalind Franklin’s data.

(On one occasion, they met with Wilkins for lunch at the Crick home, where Peter could often be found for brunch on the weekends. On certain of these earlier brunch occasions, while in the home’s basement dining room, Watson and Crick discussed the feasibility of redoubling their efforts to model DNA while Peter, casually eating biscuits and sipping tea at the table, offered that if they didn’t do it soon, his father would take another shot at it. After the embarrassment of a failed attempt, he assured them, Linus Pauling was a strong bet to get it right the second time around.)

Within a month’s time, and with Rosalind Franklin having left his lab, Wilkins finally consented to providing Watson and Crick with all of the relevant data that he had requested. This proved to be the final piece that the duo needed in building their correct structural model of DNA.


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Pauling en route to Europe, 1953.

While all of this went on, Linus himself was seemingly unconcerned by any “race” for the structure of DNA. In fact, the only racing on his mind was a jaunt across Western Europe in a new sports car.

While Watson and Crick frantically worked to unravel the secrets of DNA before Linus Pauling beat them to it, Linus Pauling himself was debating the virtues of British, German, and Italian motor vehicles. Preparing for multiple trips overseas and in the market for some new wheels, Pauling’s plan was to select a car while in Europe during the Spring for the Solvay Conference, and then to actually pick it up in August, when he and Ava Helen would return to Europe for the International Congress of Pure and Applied Chemistry in Stockholm and Uppsala. The couple would then tour the continent in style before returning to the United States on a Scandinavian freighter and driving across the country from either New York or New Orleans to their California home.

While Peter advised his father that a Jaguar Mark VII was absolutely the best buy of the season, Linus expressed a preference for the slightly more modest convertible Sunbeam-Talbot. Peter countered with the possibility of an Austin A-40 Sports 4-Seater, and Linus finally agreed to have Peter look into purchasing the car on his behalf and scheduling a delivery of sorts. Seeing that his father was finally taking the bait, Peter attempted to spring a trap: “Might you be in need of a chauffeur, mechanic, linguist, travelling companion, navigator, break repairer, tire changer, witty conversationalist etc. on your trip next summer?” he wondered. “I know just the fellow. Good friend of mine.”


 

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A segment of the original Watson and Crick DNA model. 1953.

As the end of March rolled around and the Solvay Conference approached, Linus Pauling alerted his son to the fact that he had not made hotel reservations or, really, any plans for his visit to Cambridge. This responsibility he delegated wholly to Peter, who was somewhat distracted at the time, writing to his father about the blue sky and sun that had finally begun to break up the English winter gloom, and announcing with pride that he had gone to two balls in one week, getting along quite well with the Scandinavian girls. “As a sensible young American, I stand out in this town of pansy Englishmen,” he declared with impunity.

When Linus finally arrived at Cambridge in April, however, he found his son’s sensibilities to be somewhat lacking. Peter had in fact not made the requested hotel reservations, and while campus accommodations were fine for the son, they were not so wonderful for the elder Pauling. Watson later joked that, “the presence of foreign girls at breakfast did not compensate for the lack of hot water in his room.”

When the moment of truth finally came, Peter and his father strode into the Cavendish offices to see the model that Watson and Crick had constructed. Upon inspection, Linus reiterated the interpretation that he had given to his son earlier: the structure was certainly possible, but to be certain, Pauling would first need to see the quantitative measurements that Wilkins had provided. By way of response, Watson and Crick produced “Photo 51,” Rosalind Franklin’s now-famous image that enabled crucial measurements concerning the structure of the B-form of DNA.

Presented with this evidence, Linus Pauling quickly conceded that Watson and Crick had solved the problem. Later that night, the Paulings, together with Watson, had dinner with the Cricks at their home at Portugal Place to celebrate. To quote Watson, each “drank their share of burgundy.”


 

So was it a race? And if so, what was Peter Pauling’s role? Was he a double agent or an informant? Or merely an unwitting accomplice, ignorant of the full implications of his actions?

In trying to answer these questions, it is important to emphasize that, for Peter, the “race for DNA” had never been a race at all. His father, he believed, was only interested in the nucleic acids as an interesting chemical compound. Linus Pauling clearly didn’t attack the structure with the same tenacity as Watson, in particular, who regarded the genetic material as the holy grail of biology, the secret of life. As Peter would write two decades later in New Scientist 

The only person who could conceivably have been racing was Jim Watson. Maurice Wilkins has never raced anyone anywhere. Francis Crick likes to pitch his brains against difficult problems… For Jim, however…the gene was the only thing in life worth bothering about and the structure of DNA was the only real problem worth solving.

In 1966, Jim Watson, then in the process of writing his book on the discovery of DNA, The Double Helix, sent Peter Pauling an early draft. His concern, he explained, was that he accurately portray Peter’s role in the entire affair; that, and he didn’t want Peter to sue him for defamation.

Peter laughed and told his old office mate that he thought it was a very good book; certainly very exciting. However, he pointed out that Watson should ask Linus Pauling for an agreement not to sue him, too. After all, Peter said, “He has more experience than I do.”

DNA: The Aftermath

Pastel depiction of the DNA base pairs by Roger Hayward.

Pastel depiction of the DNA base pairs by Roger Hayward.

The solving of the double helix structure of DNA is now considered to be one of the most important discoveries in modern scientific history. The structure itself suggested a possible mechanism for its own replication, and it also opened up a huge window of opportunity for advances in multiple fields ranging from biology to genetics to biochemistry to medicine. Almost immediately after James Watson and Francis Crick announced their structure, new research began based on the structure’s specifications.

An Early Idea from George Gamow

The Pauling Papers contain an interesting example of research done on the structure of DNA mere months after its discovery. On October 22, 1953, the Russian-born physicist (and founder of the “RNA Tie Club“) George Gamow sent a letter to Linus Pauling that mentioned some work he had been doing with DNA. Gamow explained that he had found a manner by which the twenty amino acids that make up proteins could be related to different combinations of the four nucleotides found in DNA.

At this time, it wasn’t known that the DNA strands unwind during replication, and Gamow assumed that protein synthesis occurred directly on the double helix. He suggested that a “lock and key relationship” might exist between each amino acid and that the “holes” formed between each complementary base pair in the DNA chain. Science is now aware that this is not the case, but Gamow’s letter is nicely demonstrative of the innovative research ushered in by Watson and Crick’s solving of DNA.

Excerpt from Gamows letter to Pauling, October 22, 1953.

Excerpt from Gamow's letter to Pauling, October 22, 1953.

Click here to view Gamow’s entire letter, and here to read Pauling’s response.

RNA

As the buzz around DNA started to die down, scientists began to move toward the next logical step: RNA. By then, Watson and Crick’s structure was widely accepted, and it had been clear for some time that DNA was the site of the gene. So, then, how did DNA transfer its information to RNA, and finally on to proteins?

Gamow’s above suggestion was a possibility, but it didn’t even involve RNA. Watson spent some time playing with the matter, but was not able to equal his luck with DNA. Unfortunately, it would be quite some time before this mechanism was elucidated. Even now, some of the finer details of how this is accomplished are not completely understood.

Four members of the RNA Tie Club, 1955. Clockwise from upper left: Francis Crick, Lesley Orgel, James Watson and Alexander Rich.  Founded by George Gamow, the RNA Tie Club met twice a year in pursuit of greater understanding of RNA.

Four members of the RNA Tie Club, 1955. Clockwise from upper left: Francis Crick, Leslie Orgel, James Watson and Alexander Rich. Founded by George Gamow, the RNA Tie Club met twice a year in pursuit of greater understanding of RNA.

Eventual Honors

Unsurprisingly, as time went on, Watson and Crick began to accumulate awards for their work with DNA. On December 15, 1959, Linus Pauling responded to a previous letter sent to him by Sir William Lawrence Bragg soliciting Pauling’s support of the nomination of Watson and Crick for the Nobel Prize. In this letter, Pauling stated that he would indeed be willing to write the requested letter of support. However, contrary to Bragg’s suggestion that they be nominated for the prize in chemistry, Pauling stated his belief that a prize in physiology or medicine would be much more fitting.

Several months later, on March 15, 1960, Pauling finally sent his letter to the Nobel Committee.  By the time of its authorship, Pauling’s feelings about the importance of Watson and Crick’s work had become even more tepid.

While acknowledging that “the hydrogen-bonded double-helix for DNA proposed by Watson and Crick has had a very great influence on the thinking of geneticists and other biologists,” Pauling notes that their work was, at least to some degree, “stimulated” by his and Robert Corey’s incorrect triple-helix structure, and abetted by Maurice Wilkins‘ x-ray photographs.  Pauling also points out that Wilkins, Corey, Karst Hoogsteen and himself had already tweaked the Watson-Crick model a bit, “which suggests the possibility that a further change in the structure of nucleic acid may be found necessary.”

In the end, Pauling couldn’t bring himself to go through with the promised nomination.

It is my opinion that the present knowledge of the structure of polypeptide chains in proteins is such as to justify the award of a Nobel Prize in this field in the near future, to Robert B. Corey for his fundamental investigations of the detailed molecular structure of amino acids and the polypeptide chains of proteins or possibly divided between him and Kendrew and Perutz. On the other hand, I think that it might well be premature to make an award of a Prize to Watson and Crick, because of existing uncertainty about the detailed structure of nucleic acid. I myself feel that it is likely that the general nature of the Watson-Crick structure is correct, but that there is doubt about details.

Pauling’s hesitations served only to delay their inevitable receipt of a Nobel Prize for a short time. In 1962, Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins shared the award in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.”

The discovery of the structure of DNA was clearly one of the most important discoveries in the modern scientific era. Not only was it a huge breakthrough in itself, but it also opened the door for major advances in numerous other science-related fields. For more information on DNA, check out the rest of the posts in our DNA series or the website on which they are based, “Linus Pauling and the Race for DNA: A Documentary History.” For more information related to Linus Pauling, please visit the Linus Pauling Online portal.

Chargaff’s Rules

Erwin Chargaff, 1930.

Erwin Chargaff, 1930.

“We have created a mechanism that makes it practically impossible for a real genius to appear. In my own field the biochemist Fritz Lipmann or the much-maligned Linus Pauling were very talented people. But generally, geniuses everywhere seem to have died out by 1914. Today, most are mediocrities blown up by the winds of the time.”

-Erwin Chargaff, 1985.

Erwin Chargaff, (1905-2002) a biochemist born in Austria, became interested in DNA earlier than most. In the 1930s, while he was working with the bacteria Rickettsi, he became aware of nucleic acids, and decided to educate himself about them.

In 1944, after Oswald Avery published his paper detailing the transforming principle of the Pneumococcus bacteria, Chargaff decided to devote his laboratory almost entirely to the chemistry of nucleic acids. Experimenting with these delicate substances was not an easy task, but eventually a chromatographic technique was developed that would allow for the separation and analysis of the base rings in DNA. This work would later lead to the development of Chargaff’s Rules, the topic of today’s post.

The guanine-cytosine base pair.

The guanine-cytosine base pair.

DNA has two main structural components – a backbone made up of sugar and phosphate groups, and a series of bases found in the middle of the molecule. There are four different bases found in DNA: Adenine (A), Cytosine (C), Guanine (G), and Thymine (T). These four bases can be divided into two categories, pyrimidines and purines. The pyrimidine bases, Cytosine and Thymine, contain only one ring, while the purine bases, Guanine and Adenine, contain two rings. In the DNA structure, the bases pair complementarily, meaning that a purine base will bind with a pyrimidine base. More specifically, Adenine binds with Thymine and Cytosine binds with Guanine.

The adenine-thymine base pair.

The adenine-thymine base pair.

Although this information is now considered fundamental biology, it wasn’t fully understood until after Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA in 1953. However, Chargaff’s research in the late 1940s had suggested that the four bases paired in the manner described above.

When Chargaff first decided to devote his laboratory to nucleic acids, he allowed a postdoctoral student named Ernst Vischer to choose his research program from a list of suggested topics. Vischer decided to analyze the purines and pyrimidines in nucleic acids, and went to work developing the chromatographic technique so crucial to isolating the bases. Although his technique was rather crude, it did the trick and Vischer achieved great success. The results of the base analysis showed that the amounts of Adenine and Thymine were about equal, and also that the amounts of Guanine and Cytosine were about equal. Eventually, Chargaff came to the conclusion that in a single molecule of DNA, Guanine/Cytosine = Adenine/Thymine = 1. This concept would later become known as Chargaff’s Rules.

Chargaff’s Rules were officially announced in a lecture delivered in June of 1949 and were first published in May of 1950. However, Linus Pauling had heard about the ratios much earlier – straight from Chargaff in late 1947, while traveling to England for his six-month stay as a professor at Oxford University. Pauling, who considered the trip by ship across the Atlantic Ocean with his family to be a vacation, did not pay attention to what Chargaff told him.

Crellin Pauling, the youngest child of Linus and Ava Helen Pauling, mentioned the remarkable background to the incident in a speech given during a symposium to celebrate Pauling’s life that was held here at Oregon State University in 1995.

Crellin Pauling on “The DNA Story: A Missed Opportunity.”

[Click here to view the rest of Crellin’s talk]

Over time Chargaff mentioned his work to individuals beyond Pauling. In the spring of 1952, Chargaff met James Watson and Francis Crick.  A prickly character, it is clear that Chargaff didn’t think much of the duo. In his truly remarkable autobiography Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature, Chargaff calls Watson and Crick “a variety act” and further describes them as:

One 35 years old (Crick), with the looks of a fading racing tout. . .an incessant falsetto, with occasional nuggets gleaming in the turbid stream of prattle. The other (Watson), quite undeveloped. . .a grin, more sly than sheepish. . .a gawky young figure.

He further notes that:

I never met two men who knew so little and aspired to so much. They told me they wanted to construct a helix, a polynucleotide to rival Pauling’s helix. They talked so much about ‘pitch’ that I remember I wrote it down afterwards, ‘Two pitchmen in search of a helix.’

[More samples from Chargaff’s acid pen are available here]

Regardless of what he thought of them, Chargaff still mentioned his work to Watson and Crick. The information, although published almost two years earlier, seemed to be new to the pair.

Though Chargaff himself didn’t speculate much on his rules, and Pauling completely ignored them, they did prove to be extremely useful to Watson and Crick. With this new knowledge, the feedback they had received from Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, and data obtained through their own research, Watson and Crick were soon able to correctly deduce the structure of DNA.

For more information on DNA, please visit the Race for DNA website, or check out the other posts in the DNA series. For more information on Linus Pauling, visit the Linus Pauling Online portal.

The Passport Imbroglio

Ava Helen and Linus Pauling's passport photo. 1953.

Ava Helen and Linus Pauling's passport photo. 1953.

A quick glance at the “Today in Linus Pauling” widget found at the top of the left sidebar of the Pauling Blog gives an excellent representation of the span and influence of Linus Pauling’s career. Rarely does a day go by where he didn’t write at least one manuscript or give a speech at a university or some other institution. Most days, readers will also note that he won some sort of award – including, of course, his two Nobel Prizes in chemistry and peace. Basically, Pauling’s career fits very well with the old cliché that anything can be done if the mind is simply set on it.

However, if one looks closely enough, a few failures can still be picked out of Pauling’s illustrious career. One of these failures is undoubtedly his attempt at determining the correct primary structure of DNA. Pauling first started working with DNA in the early 1950s, right around the time when his scientific career was reaching its peak. During this time, Pauling’s pursuits had also taken a controversial political shift – work which caused him to be denied a passport for a short period of time. This passport denial, because it is believed by many to be the reason why Pauling was beaten to the structure of DNA, is the topic of today’s post.

Near the end of 1951, Pauling received an invitation to attend a meeting of the Royal Society in England; a meeting that was specially designed for him to address questions about his protein structures. The meeting was scheduled for May 1, 1952, and promised to give Pauling an opportunity to visit King’s College in London, where he knew Maurice Wilkins had some excellent X-ray patterns of DNA.

However, when Pauling sent in his passport renewal application in January 1952, he was upset but unsurprised to find it denied by Ruth B. Shipley, the head of the State Department’s passport division. Shipley didn’t give Pauling a good reason for the denial, stating only that “the Department is of the opinion that your proposed travel would not be in the best interests of the United States.” Reading between the lines, Pauling’s liberal views had clearly earned him the label of “possible Communist,” and Shipley, who was a fervent anti-Communist, had the authority to deny passports at her discretion.

Video Link: Pauling discusses his reaction to the refusal of his passport.

Fortunately for Pauling, the delay caused by the situation was not a long one. In the summer of 1952, he sent in another passport application. Again, Shipley immediately denied it, but her decision was overruled – after much deliberation – by higher-level employees of the State Department. Eventually, Pauling was notified that he would be granted a limited passport to travel for a short period of time in England and France if he agreed to sign an affidavit stating that he wasn’t a Communist. Surprised and pleased by the news, Pauling immediately agreed and received his new passport within days.

Thus equipped with the necessary papers, Pauling traveled to England, where he stayed for a month. He visited the same places and talked with the same people that he would have earlier in the year, but he did not visit King’s College to view Wilkins’ X-ray data. As it turns out, Pauling wasn’t even thinking about DNA during his time in England.

After England, Pauling traveled to France, where he learned of the results of the Hershey-Chase blender experiment:  DNA was in fact the site of the gene, not proteins, as Pauling had believed. Upon learning of the keen importance of DNA, he decided that he would solve the structure of the molecule.

However, when he returned to Caltech in September of 1952, he continued to work almost exclusively with proteins. It wasn’t until November that Pauling would finally take a serious stab at the structure of DNA. And, as has been well-documented, even with his excellent knowledge of structural chemistry, Pauling’s data – presented in the form of blurry X-ray patterns created by William T. Astbury – was insufficient. He ended up creating a model that was nearly identical to one Watson and Crick had made over a year earlier. Of course, Pauling soon learned that his structure was incorrect, and before he could make another attempt, Watson and Crick had solved DNA.

The importance of Pauling’s passport imbroglio is, as it turns out, counter to the popular mythology of the DNA story. Although the denial of Pauling’s passport caused minor delays in his travels, it surely did not keep him from determining the structure of DNA. Even if he had traveled to England as originally planned, it is unlikely that he would have visited Wilkins to view his X-ray data. Pauling, even after finding out that DNA was extremely important, made no effort to obtain better data, nor did he even work specifically with DNA for quite some time. One is forced to conclude then, that the reason that Linus Pauling was not able to solve DNA is that he never really put his mind to the matter, not because of a pesky passport denial that delayed his travels a mere ten weeks.

For more information on Linus Pauling’s DNA pursuits, please visit the website Linus Pauling and the Race for DNA: A Documentary History. For other information on Pauling, check out the Linus Pauling Online portal.

The X-Ray Crystallography that Propelled the Race for DNA: Astbury’s Pictures vs. Franklin’s Photo 51

Rosalind Franklin, March 1956

Rosalind Franklin, March 1956

During their so-called race to discover the structure of DNA, Linus Pauling and the unlikely pair of James Watson and Francis Crick utilized remarkably similar approaches in attempting to solve the riddle of the genetic material. In fact, one of the main tactics used by Watson and Crick was to approach the problem in the same manner that they assumed Pauling would. Although Pauling and Watson and Crick did, at one point, come up with nearly identical, yet incorrect, structures, it was Watson and Crick who would eventually solve DNA. Why then, if the pair were thinking like Pauling, were they able to beat him to the structure?

Although there were a variety of reasons behind Watson and Crick’s success, a good portion of it can be attributed to the relative superiority of resources available to them. Watson and Crick obviously had each other to keep themselves in check, but they also benefited from other voices of criticism such as Rosalind Franklin, Maurice Wilkins, and later Jerry Donohue. Linus Pauling also shared his ideas with his colleagues, but none of them were very familiar with DNA, and therefore couldn’t offer much feedback. (And they were largely ignored even when they did offer criticisms of Pauling’s structure.)

Another vital resource available to Watson and Crick was an excellent X-ray crystallography pattern, the famous photo 51, taken by Rosalind Franklin. Although, in all likelihood, Pauling could have also viewed Franklin’s photographs had he tried, he settled on using blurry patterns published by William T. Astbury several years before Franklin’s superior images. These X-ray photographs are the main topic of today’s post. In particular, the factors accounting for the difference in quality between Franklin’s and Astbury’s patterns will be discussed. Before delving into this subject, however, a brief overview of X-ray crystallography is necessary.

William T. Astbury, ca. 1950s.

William T. Astbury, ca. 1950s.

X-ray crystallography, also sometimes known as X-ray diffraction, is used to determine the arrangement of atoms within a crystalline molecule. It is a rather complicated procedure, and the photos taken in the process can be interpreted only by a person with significant training. The steps to obtaining these photos are as follows.

First, an adequate crystal must be obtained. This is a very difficult step because the crystal must be large enough to observe and also sufficiently uniform. If it does not meet these specifications, errors – such as blurriness – will occur, often rendering the resulting crystallographic patterns useless, at least for purposes of determining atomic arrangement.

After an adequate crystalline specimen is obtained, a beam of X-rays is shined through it. When the beam strikes the electron clouds of the atoms in the crystal, it is scattered. These scattered beams can then be observed on a screen placed behind the crystal. Based on the angles and intensities of the scattered beams, a crystallographer can create a three dimensional picture of the electron density of the crystal.

Finally, from the electron density information, the mean positions of the atoms within a crystal can be determined, and the structure of the molecule can be considered “solved.” That said, just one image is not nearly enough to determine the structure of an entire crystal. Therefore, the crystal must be rotated stepwise through angles up to and even slightly beyond 180 degrees, depending on the specimen. Patterns are required at each step, and complete data sets may contain hundreds of photos.

Clearly, because the process of X-ray crystallography is so cumbersome, there are many opportunities for mistakes that may have led to the poor quality of Astbury’s photographs. However, Astbury’s techniques seem to have been excellent. He was a very experienced crystallographer, and had achieved great success in his earlier work with X-ray diffraction on substances such as keratin.

As it turns out, Astbury’s photos were of poor quality because of the DNA sample he was using. In the early 1950s, Rosalind Franklin had discovered that DNA came in two forms – a dry condensed form and a wet extended form. Astbury’s DNA sample was well prepared from calf thymus, but it contained a mixture of the two forms. This turned out to be the major reason why Astbury’s photographs were so blurry

Astbury's images, 1947. Plate 2.

Astbury's images, 1947. Plate 2.

It is important to note that, even if Astbury had known he was using a poor crystalline sample of DNA, he probably still wouldn’t have been able to compete with the quality of Franklin’s photos. In 1950, three years after Astbury’s images were published, Maurice Wilkins developed a way to obtain much better X-ray patterns of DNA through the use of a solution of sodium thymonucleate. This solution is highly viscous, and Wilkins found that thin strands could be drawn out by gently dipping a glass stirring rod into a sample and slowly pulling it out. These thin strands were pure DNA, and Wilkins was able to get excellent X-ray patterns from them.

Before long, Wilkins had also acquired better equipment and had also hired Rosalind Franklin to run it. Franklin, essentially working independently, used the same basic technique developed by Wilkins. She did, however, add several of her own smaller experimental refinements, which made the photographs even better. Eventually, she developed photo 51, which would later be shown to Watson and Crick. The rest, as they say, is history.

Rosalind Franklin and William Astbury were both excellent crystallographers, but Franklin’s experience with DNA gave her a clear advantage when working with the molecule. Her brilliant X-ray patterns would later prove to be a major determining factor in the “race for DNA”. For more information on DNA, please visit the Race for DNA website. For much more on Linus Pauling, check out the Linus Pauling Online portal.

The Watson and Crick Structure of DNA

Francis Crick and James Watson, walking along the the Backs, Cambridge, England. 1953.

Today, our series on models of DNA is concluded with a discussion of the correct structure determined by James Watson and Francis Crick. Although they made an unlikely pair, the two men succeeded where one of the era’s leading scientists – Linus Pauling – failed, and in the process they unraveled the secrets of what may be the most important molecule in human history.

In the fall of 1951, James Watson was studying microbial metabolism and nucleic acid biochemistry as a postdoctoral fellow in Europe. It didn’t take long for him to tire of these subjects and to begin looking for more inspiring research. He became interested in DNA upon seeing some x-ray photos developed by Maurice Wilkins. He then tried to talk his way into Wilkins’ lab at King’s College, but was denied and ended up studying protein x-ray diffraction in the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University. Here he was assigned space in an office to be shared with an older graduate student named Francis Crick, a crystallographer. At the time, Crick was studying under Max Perutz, and was also becoming bored with his research. Watson and Crick hit it off immediately and before long, Watson’s interest in DNA had worn off on Crick. Although neither of them were experts in structural chemistry, they decided to attempt to solve the structure of DNA. As Watson put it, their planned method of attack would be to “imitate Linus Pauling and beat him at his own game.”

The pair’s first attempt at the structure in the fall of 1951 was very quick, and also unsuccessful. Interestingly, however, it was quite similar to Linus Pauling and Robert Corey‘s own attempt about a year later. Watson and Crick came up with a three stranded helix, with the base rings located on the outside of the molecule and the phosphate groups found on the inside. This left them with the problem of fitting so many negatively charged phosphates into the core without the molecule blowing itself apart. In order to solve this problem, they turned to Pauling’s own The Nature of the Chemical Bond. They were looking for positive ions that would fit into the core of DNA, therefore canceling the negative charge. They found magnesium and calcium to be possibilities, but there was no significant evidence that these ions were in DNA. However, there was no evidence against it either, so they ran with the idea.

Watson and Crick assumed – as would Pauling in his later attempt – that the finer details would fall into place. Overjoyed at solving DNA so quickly, they invited Wilkins and his assistant, Rosalind Franklin, to have a look at their structure. Expecting praise, they were undoubtedly surprised when Franklin verbally destroyed their work. She told them that any positive ions found in the core would be surrounded by water, which would render them neutral and unable to cancel out the negative phosphate charges. She also noted that DNA soaks up a large amount of water, which indicates that the phosphate groups are on the outside of the molecule. All in all, Franklin had no positive feedback for Watson and Crick.  And she was, at it turned out, correct. After the visit, Watson and Crick attempted to persuade Wilkins and Franklin to collaborate with them on another attempt at the structure of DNA, but their offer was declined.

Diagram of the double-helix structure of DNA. August 1968.

When Sir William Lawrence Bragg, the head of the Cavendish laboratory, heard about Watson and Crick’s failure, he quickly sent them back to other projects. Almost a year passed with Watson and Crick accomplishing no significant work on DNA. Although they weren’t building models, DNA was still at the front of their minds and they were gathering information at every opportunity. In the fall of 1952, Peter Pauling, the second eldest of Linus and Ava Helen Pauling’s four children, arrived at Cambridge to work as a graduate student. Jerry Donohue, another colleague of Pauling’s from Caltech, also arrived at the same time and was assigned to share an office with Watson and Crick. As a result, Peter also fell in with the group. Therefore, as the quest for DNA progressed, Linus Pauling was provided with a general idea of Watson and Crick’s work with DNA through contact with Peter. However, the opposite also proved true.

When Pauling and Corey submitted their manuscript on the structure of DNA in the last few days of 1952, Peter passed on to Watson and Crick the news that his father had solved DNA. Although the two men were crestfallen by this information, they decided to soldier on with their own program of research, figuring that if they published something at the same time Pauling that did, they might at least be able to share some of the credit.

Around this time, the pair added an important piece of information that they had learned from Erwin Chargaff, a biochemist. He had told them that the four different base rings in DNA appeared to be found in pairs. That is, one base ring is found in the same relative amounts as another. This first correlation constitutes one pair, and the remaining two bases make up the other pair. Interestingly enough, Chargaff had also told Pauling this same thing in 1947. However, Pauling had found him to be annoying and, as a result, disregarded his tip. Chargaff’s information did, however, prove to be crucial for Watson and Crick, who were slowly piecing together the basics of the DNA structure.

When Watson and Crick finally received Pauling’s manuscript via Peter in early-February 1953, they were surprised – not to mention elated – to see a structure very similar to their own first attempt. Bragg, a long time competitor of Pauling’s, was so pleased to see Pauling’s unsatisfactory work that he allowed Watson and Crick to return to DNA full time. The pair wasted no time, and had soon spread the news about Pauling’s model to all of Cambridge. Watson even told Wilkins about the manuscript, and was rewarded with the permission to view Franklin’s most recent DNA x-ray patterns. These beautifully-clear photos immediately confirmed Watson’s suspicion that DNA was a helix, adding yet another piece of important information.

Based on all of the information that they had gathered, Watson and Crick began rapidly building models. One model, which Watson called “a very pretty model,” contained the wrong structures for two base rings. Fortunately, Donohue, who was an excellent structural chemist, set them right. After his correction, Watson and Crick noticed that hydrogen bonds would form naturally between the base pairs. This explained Chargaff’s findings, and also showed the potential for replication of the molecule. The rest of the model came together quickly, and Watson and Crick began to write up their structure.

Eventually, Linus Pauling began to catch wind of the recent work that Watson and Crick had been doing with DNA. His first actual glimpse of their work came in March 1953 when Watson sent a letter to Max Delbrück, a colleague of Pauling’s, that included a brief description and rough sketches of the structure. Although Watson had asked Delbrück not to show the letter to Pauling, Delbrück could not resist. Pauling marveled at the simplicity and functionality of the structure, but still retained confidence in his own structure. Only a few days later, Pauling received an advance copy of the Watson and Crick manuscript, but he was still not convinced they had solved DNA. In April, Pauling finally traveled to England, and only after seeing the model in person and comparing it to Franklin’s DNA photographs was he certain that Watson and Crick had solved the structure of DNA.

On April 25, 1953, Watson and Crick’s article, “A Structure for DNA” was published in Nature. James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins would go on to share the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 1962 “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.” Unfortunately, Rosalind Franklin died of cancer at age 37 and, for many years, was given only minor credit for her considerable contributions related to the discovery of the DNA structure.

For more information on Watson and Crick and DNA, please visit the website Linus Pauling and the Race for DNA: A Documentary History. For more information on Linus Pauling and his research, visit the Linus Pauling Online Portal.

The Fraser Structure of DNA

Today, the DNA series is continued with a post discussing a mostly correct structure that almost emerged from King’s College in the early 1950s. Although Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin, and Bruce Fraser each contributed information for the structure, it was Fraser that actually put the pieces together and built a model. Therefore, today’s post will focus on Fraser, a lesser-known player in the DNA story.

Robert Donald Bruce Fraser was born on August 14, 1924 in Ickenham, England. In 1943, he received his first of many degrees – an intermediate Bachelors of Science from Birkbeck College in London. Fraser returned to academics after a stint with the Royal Air Force that lasted from 1943 to 1946. In 1948, he received a Bachelors of Science in Physics and Math from King’s College in London. After receiving this degree, Fraser remained at King’s College for quite some time. He held a Medical Research Council Studentship position for approximately three years and received his Ph.D. in Biophysics in 1951.

During his Ph.D. candidacy, Fraser utilized infrared methods to study DNA samples prepared by his wife, Mary Fraser. The duo used the data gathered from this research to establish the idea that the large base groups in DNA sit perpendicular to the molecular axis – information that was soon published (“Physical Studies of Nucleic Acid: Evidence on the Structure of Deoxyribonucleic Acid from Measurements with Polarized Infra-Red Radiation” by Mary J. Fraser & Robert D.B. Fraser in Nature 167. Link not available).

Although DNA had yet to become a particularly important molecule in terms of research, Fraser was not the only person at King’s College working with it. Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin were also studying DNA, but neither was inclined to make a model based on their data. In fact, Franklin was strongly against model-building until the structure was completely understood.

Despite this, Fraser decided to try his hand at building a model based on both his own research as well as the research of Wilkins and Franklin. Before beginning, he discussed the molecule with both his soon-to-be famous colleagues. More specifically, he asked how many chains each thought a molecule of DNA would contain. Both said three, based on two pieces of information: a) the measurements and density for water content suggested more than one chain, and b)  two chains wouldn’t seem to fill enough space. Using this information, Fraser began to work on his model.

The structure came together very quickly. It was a rather simple model that consisted of a helical shape with three chains, the phosphate groups on the outside of the molecule, and the base groups stacked in the center. As it would turn out, this model correctly predicted almost all of the key features of DNA – the only fault was the three chain property, something that was becoming a common error.

Although Fraser created an excellent model, it did not receive any credit. As a result of Wilkins’ and Franklin’s views on model building, the structure was not to be published. After completing his doctorate work in 1952, Fraser left London and took a position as the chief of the protein chemistry division for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Melbourne, Australia.

However, this move did not put Fraser completely out of the DNA picture. In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick were preparing to publish their structure. Wilkins, upon seeing their model, decided that Fraser should have the opportunity to publish his model before Watson and Crick’s was released. Furthermore, Wilkins wanted credit for his significant work with DNA.

Accordingly, Wilkins contacted Fraser in Australia and asked him to quickly write up his structure for an article in Nature that would be accompanied by a short note from Wilkins. Fraser complied and frantically authored a brief paper titled “The Structure of Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid.” This work took Fraser the entirety of one night, and the next morning he cabled it off to London – a rather expensive process.

Unfortunately, despite Fraser’s hard work, he was once again disappointed.

Upon the arrival of the document in London, Francis Crick decided that it should not be published. Instead, he told Wilkins that Fraser would be acknowledged by him and Watson in their article (“Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid“) and that they would state that Fraser’s paper was “in the press”. In reality, the paper was not in the press and it would, in fact, never be published.

For more information on R.D.B. Fraser’s work, visit the website Linus Pauling and the Race for DNA, available at the Linus Pauling Online portal.