Sixty years ago Thursday, James Watson and Francis Crick ushered in the era of genomics when they unmasked the double helical structure of DNA, a landmark discovery that forever changed how the world understood the very nature of life itself.

"Clearly, it is one of the biggest discoveries, if not the seminal discovery of the life sciences in the 20th century," said David Stewart, a professor in the Watson School of Biological Sciences at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

The lab is marking the anniversary with a four-day meeting featuring an international roster of molecular biologists who are expected to assemble on campus starting Thursday.

Seven Nobel Prize winners, including Watson, 84, chancellor emeritus of Cold Spring Harbor Lab, are expected at the symposium.

Stewart, who is also executive director of the lab's meetings division, has been finalizing details in recent weeks along with several colleagues.

He and colleagues Alex Gann, dean of the Watson School, and Rob Martienssen, a professor of plant genetics at the lab, have organized a meeting that is forward-looking, they say.

Participants will discuss the future of genomics.

At the 50th anniversary celebration, participants mostly looked backward, marveling at how far they had come in a half century.

The past has left an indelible mark on the lab and history.

The bar on campus has been transformed this week into a close facsimile of the Eagle Pub, a Cambridge, England, eatery and watering hole. It is the place where Crick is said to have interrupted lunchtime patrons on Feb. 28, 1953, with a deceptively simple announcement: "We have discovered the secret of life," he said.

Watson and Crick had cracked the code of life at Cambridge University.

That discovery, scientists now say, is still paying enormous dividends. It is allowing investigators across numerous disciplines -- from genetics to medicine to biological engineering -- to behold and now manipulate the basic molecular building blocks of life itself.

In retrospect, 1953 was a bombshell year for molecular biology because before then, no one believed the chemistry of life was so simple.

"The most remarkable thing was that nobody had a clear idea how genes could copy themselves, which is the basis for how life reproduces. And these seemed almost mystical questions at the time," Gann said.

DNA orders itself into a regularly repeating fashion of a double helix -- a spiraling staircase -- bearing an organism's entire dowry of heritable information.

The Watson and Crick discovery taught generations of scientists an entirely new alphabet, four molecular letters -- A, T, C and G -- which dictate the storage, copying and transferance of their information to usable form.

Said Gann, who hails from the United Kingdom: "Being British, I am calling this our jubilee year," he said of DNA's 60th anniversary.

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