Pioneer scientists pay homage to each other

(L-R) Nobel Prize winners Matthew Meselson, Sydney Brenner, (L-R) Nobel Prize winners Matthew Meselson, Sydney Brenner, James Watson and Walter Gilbert, convene at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories Saturday to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the discovery of DNA's double helix. (March 02, 2013) Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

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After 21/2 days of presentations outlining cutting-edge research into genomics, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory turned its attention last night to four octogenarians who helped shape the modern science of molecular biology.

It was an hour largely devoted to paying homage to James Watson, 84, chancellor emeritus of the laboratory, who shared a 1962 Nobel Prize with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, both now deceased, for the discovery of DNA's helical structure.

Those giving accolades included some who had won Nobel Prizes themselves.

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the structure's discovery with dozens of scientific presentations and posters of work in progress.

But Crick, who died in 2004, was very much alive in the room last night.

Watson didn't mind taking a few comic jabs at his late friend and collaborator, who worked with him at Cambridge University in Great Britain to decipher the helical pattern.

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"Francis would start talks daily about how beautiful the structure was," Watson told a capacity crowd at Grace Auditorium on the lab's campus.

"I would do anything not to hear him and to get out of that room."

DNA, the so-called master molecule of life, was discovered in the 1940s but work led by Watson and Crick helped change the course of biology when they deciphered the molecule's configuration. Later, with the help of other scientists they also figured out how it replicated.

Sydney Brenner, 86, of South Africa, who won a Nobel Prize in 2002 for seminal work explaining apoptosis -- how cells are programmed to die -- was in Britain at the same time as Watson and Crick and recalled the pair working on a life-size helical model.

He, too, took a few comical jabs at Crick.

"I went to the lab to see the model," Brenner said. "Jim was very impatient and Francis just couldn't stop talking.

"So I went for a walk with Jim and walking with him means you have to run, and I am finding the same is true 60 years later."

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Matthew Meselson, 82, recipient of a Lasker Award, the so-called American Nobel Prize, took a jab at Watson, noting that he is one of the worst drivers ever to get behind the wheel of a car.

Walter Gilbert, 80, another Nobel Prize winner, who was a graduate student under Watson, helped work out the critical chemistry of how the DNA molecule replicates. He marveled at how technology has changed since the 1950s when he, Watson and other scientists used stop watches and other jerry-rigged equipment to carry out critical scientific experiments.

"I learned about biology from Francis," said Gilbert, who was trained as a physicist before becoming a biologist.

Watson noted that dozens of young scientists were at Cambridge, which had become the epicenter of biological research in the early 1950s. The science was so new, it was not even called molecular biology at the time, he and the other scientists said.

Not mentioned in the recollections of scientists who were in Cambridge in the early 1950s was Rosalind Franklin. She was the X-ray crystallographer who produced clear images of biological molecules. Her photo No. 51 revealed the structure of DNA, and was used during a lecture she gave while Watson and Crick were still trying to decipher the structure. When Watson saw it, he knew what he and Crick had to do to fully confirm the molecule's helical structure.

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Franklin died in 1958 at age 38 and received no awards for her work.

Maurice Wilkins, who was working separately at King's College in England, shared the prize with Watson and Crick, even though he was not directly collaborating with them.

Alex Gann, dean of the Watson School for Biological Sciences at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, said earlier in the week that this is probably the last celebration of the DNA helix that will include researchers who were alive at the time of its discovery.

"We are looking forward to the 70th anniversary," he said, "but I think the really big one will be the 75th."


The human genome is contained in a coiled double helix of DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid.

Stretched out, the coil would be 5 feet long, but only 20 microns wide. A human hair is about 50 microns wide.

About 3 billion DNA subunits, called base-pairs, make up the double helix.

Genes give coded instructions to the cell on how to assemble proteins. Making of a protein from this code is called "gene expression."

Many human disorders are caused by genetic flaws, or by the absence of one or more genes.

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