Remembering Rosalind Franklin, the unsung hero whose research helped discover the structure of DNA

first_imgThe double helical DNA structure that we needed to learn drawing in our science classes wasn’t known till hardly a few decades ago. Though three men carried away the Nobel Prize for this humongous discovery, it was actually the tenacity and determination of a woman that helped find all the individual pieces of data that could lead up to the moment of the discovery.Rosalind Franklin, whose research was essential to discovering the DNA structure, now has a number of biographies on her, including ‘Rosalind Franklin and DNA’ (1975) and ‘Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA’ (2002).Moreover, ‘The Race for the Double Helix’ is a 1987 TV series by BBC Horizon on FranklinA one-act play named ‘Photograph 51′ was also written on her, in which Nicole Kidman starred at the West End in 2015There is also an asteroid named after her as 9241 Rosfranklin, which was discovered by John Broughton, an amateur astronomer from Australia.Nicole Kidman in a scene from the play Photograph 51Growing up: Intellectual debates and generosityRosalind Franklin was the second of five children born to an investment banker and lawyer couple on July 25, 1920Though it was an upper class Jewish family, her father taught at the underprivileged at the London’s Working Men’s College, while her mother helped the unemployed, the elderly, and the unmarried mothers.They brought up their children encouraging them to debate and present their opinionsFranklin at about age 12, second from right, with her siblings (from left) Roland, David, Jenifer, and Colin. NadvertisementAs a child, Rosalind showed her great intellect and her skill in sports and proficiency in languagesShe learned French, German and LatinAt 15, when asked which book she would like as school prize, her choice was one which included concepts of quantum physics and subatomic energy — Arthur Eddington’s 1935 New Pathways in Science.Her choice spoke about her future– Physical Science was her forteAfter she left school in 1938, Rosalind donated her university scholarship money to a refugee studentAt home, lived two children fleeing from the Nazi regime, whom her parents had taken inThe beginnings of the perfectionist scientistThe 18-year-old Rosalind Franklin started off with her studies in Natural Sciences at the all-female Newnham College in Cambridge University in 1938.However, it was only in 1948 that the college started to accept women as full membersShe graduated after three hours with a second class she was disappointed withShe was a perfectionist and spent too long writing the first few answers perfectly to complete the whole examHer topping in Physical Chemistry earned her a research fellowshipUnder the doctoral advice of future Nobel Prize winner Ronal Norrish, Franklin started her research on polymerisation reaction speeds.She quit in a year as the work didn’t appeal to herFrom coal to molecular sieveWorld War 2 was well under way when in 1942, Franklin started her research on coal in London. Coal is a porous substance with tiny tunnel networks inside.Franklin classified coal according to their porosity which was related to how effective that coal is as a fuelsource: forensicgenealogy.infoFranklin also found that most tunnels in the coal had the same diameter as gas moleculesThus, if impure gas was passed through coal, only smaller molecules could pass through which could filter the airThis discovery showed that coal could be used a molecular sieve and the property is essential today in a number of applications that need to extract oxygen from the air.It has major use in the aerospace industryFranklin’s work on coal helped her to form a PhD thesis and earned her the doctorate from Cambridge in 1945Understanding X-ray diffraction and office tensionsFranklin was 27 years old when she moved to Paris in 1947 to work on X-ray diffraction in the central laboratory of the French government.Three years later, 30-year-old Franklin joined London’s King’s College to work on her postdoctoral fellowshipThere, she began her work on DNA as a part of Maurice Wilkin’s teamWilkins has obtained a perfect DNA sample and had drawn it into microfibersRaymond Gosling, a doctoral student of his, found that the microfibers were crystalline under suitable conditionsCrystals could be studied using x-ray diffraction and this was a big revelationThough Wilkins and Franklin were peers in the same laboratory and in the same field, their work on DNA was conducted separately.There was a negative tension between them fuelled in part by office politics by their boss RandallFranklin also took over as Gosling’s mentor and he is later known to have remarked on the harmful atmosphere created by the two scientists’ sour relationship.advertisementAccording to him, Randall fuelled the tension thinking it would make his researchers more productiveThe first breakthrough: Finding the ‘B DNA’She continued her work with X-ray diffraction in Paris, and within eight months came upon B DNA, a type never known beforeIt was moister than the drier A DNAB DNA was formed when the DNA was exposed to high moisture levelsIt was later discovered that in living cells, the B DNA is the usual arrangementAlso read: Mysterious ‘Yeti’ analyzed by scientists, turns out to be a bear: Findings of the studyAfter this discovery, Franklin realised that the earlier X-ray studies which showed both A DNA and B DNA had a blurring effect which was not very helpful.Meeting and inspiring Watson and CrickA month later, as she presented about it in a conference, American researcher James Watson was listening keenlyAlong with yet another DNA enthusiast from Cambridge, Francis Crick, Watson created a 3D model of DNAIt was only when they invited the London researchers to check out their model did all the characters involved in the discovery come together: from King’s College in London came Franklin, Wilkins, and Gosling, while from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory came Watson and Crick.However, Watson did not remember all the details from Franklin’s talk and the duo was not experienced in ChemistryThe triple helix model was faulty and Franklin also argued that her X-ray diffraction photos did not certify a helical modelEven when asked, she and Gosling refused to collaborate with Watson and CrickFollowing this, the Cambridge laboratory head, Lawrence Bragg, ordered Watson and Crick to stop their researchWhen Raymond Gosling ‘clicked’ Photo 51 and Watson saw itThe famous Photo 51, a photo of B DNA derived through X-ray diffraction, was taken by Gosling on May 2, 1952Also read: Scientists just took the first ever coloured X-ray of a human body!The photo was so clear that it instantly gave a lot of information of its helical structureThe distance between two consecutives twists of the helix could be understood, along with the diameter of the helixThe photo also showed how the chemical groups in the DNA were arranged-while the heavy phosphate groups lay outside the helix, the bases carrying genetic code lay inside.source: schaechter.asmblog.orgFranklin decided to leave King’s College to do X-ray work in London’s Birkbeck College around a month after the photoIn January 1953, as her departure drew closer, Gosling went back under the doctoral advice of Wilkins againWhen he showed Photo 51 to his advisor, the secrecy of the photograph for eight months and its amazing clarity shocked Wilkins.He eventually showed it to James Watson, who was essentially a rivalThis changed the course of historyThe helical structure was so clear that this spurred Watson to go back to model buildingHow Franklin found the pieces but failed to solve the puzzleIn January 1953, Lawrence Bragg asked Watson and Crick to resume their research on the DNA model.advertisementAlso read: Scientists build DNA nano robot that can sort and deliver molecular cargo using arms and feetA report of Franklin’s which mentioned that the DNA’s crystal space group was face-centred monoclinic ushered in the final discoveryWhen Crick saw the report, he knew this meant there were two matching helices running in opposite direction in the DNAWatson meanwhile found out how the bases of a DNA which carried the genetic code would fit into the double helix modelThe DNA code was thus cracked by March 7, 1953 by Watson and CrickFrom left to right: Anne Cullis, Francis Crick, Donald Caspar, Aaron Klug, Rosalind Franklin, Odile Crick, and John Kendrew. (source: deeply regretted how she had missed out on the groundbreaking discovery herselfShe had been unable to fit together the pieces she had foundShe had been hindered by several factors:Her perfectionist traits made her refuse to construct a model before the full mathematical analysis was complete. However, Linus Pauling’s work showed that building a model could actually help usher in a finding.The X-ray diffraction photos of A DNA were blurry compared to those of B DNA. She was trying to figure out the reason and later, Crick would write that had he seen those, he would have been worried too.Franklin was not a part of a team and could not constantly bounce off ideas against someone else which Watson and Crick could.The atmosphere at King’s College was not conducive to intellectual debates and discussions and without relaxation, one cannot be creative enough to formulate new ideas.The respective heads of the London and Cambridge laboratories, Randall and Bragg, decided that the two teams would write separate research papers.Many commentators later spoke out on how Franklin and Gosling should have been co-authors on Watson and Crick’s groundbreaking paper.The Nature journal published three research papers on April 25, 1953-one by Franklin and Gosling, the second by Watson and Crick, and the third by Wilkins, Stokes and Wilson.Working on the tobacco mosaic virusFranklin studied the 3-D structure of plant viruses such as the tobacco mosaic virus using X-ray diffraction in Birkbeck College where she had moved to in March 1953.Aaron Klug was recruited by her as a doctoral student and they discovered that the tobacco mosaic virus consisted of a single RNA molecule which was embedded in a helical array of protein molecules.Franklin’s refusal to bow down to cancerIn late 1956, Franklin was diagnosed with ovarian cancerFranklin was an Ashkenazi Jew and they are genetically predisposed to ovarian cancerSo, her very DNA could have carried her fateful defectMoreover, she worked a lot with X-rays which could not have been good for her body as was seen by Marie Curie’s untimely death in 1934 followed by that of her Nobel winning daughter Irene Joliot-Curie.She went through multiple surgeries and treatments for 18 months and in the remission periods, she continued her work even in her excessive weakness.Her zeal and dedication was enough to bring tears to the eyes of her colleaguesWhen she was unable to walk, she crawled up the stairs on her hands and knees to go between laboratories in Birkbeck CollegeRosalind Franklin went back to helping others at the end of her lifeAlso read: List of world’s 20 most generous people: All you need to knowShe gave 3000 pounds to Aaron Klug to relieve him of his financial worriesKlug went on to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1982She also left 1000 pounds apiece to two friends who needed to support their young childrenFranklin passed away at the age of 37 in London, on April 16, 1958Watson, Crick and Wilkins (l to r)The 1962 Nobel Prize for medicine was shared by Watson, Crick and Wilkins for the discovery of the DNA structureThere was no posthumous Nobel Prize and so, Franklin, who had died four years ago, missed out on the awardRead: Srinivasa Ramanujan: The mathematical genius who credited his 3900 formulae to visions from Goddess Mahalakshmi Interested in General Knowledge and Current Affairs? 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