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.