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Spotlight on Rosalind Franklin - the woman behind the DNA structure discovery!

You may know about the Watson-Crick Model of DNA. Watson, Crick & Wilkins received the Nobel Prize for DNA structure discovery. But you may not know that DNA structure discovery might have remained a dream for much longer, if not for a British lady by the name of Rosalind Franklin, a woman who had a catalytic role in the discovery of DNA structure.

2020 was Rosalind Franklin’s one hundredth birth anniversary, so let us shed some light on this forgotten DNA lady.

In 1950, Rosalind Franklin started working at the Medical Research Council’s Biophysics Unit of Kings College London. She was assigned to work on DNA fibers by John Randall (the director of the unit) and she used her expertise in experimental diffraction (she was the only researcher in King’s College London with that knowledge at that time!) and improved the X-ray diffraction techniques to observe DNA structure. At that time, Maurice Wilkins had also been working on the diffraction study of DNA. Due to miscommunication between Randall, Franklin, and Wilkins, a lot of friction got developed between Franklin and Wilkins which only escalated later. Nonetheless, following Randall’s instructions, they both worked on DNA in the areas allotted to them.

In November 1951, Franklin presented their DNA X-ray diffraction data at King’s College London wherein she stated for the first time -

“The results suggest a helical structure (which must be very closely packed) containing 2, 3 or 4 co-axial nucleic acid chains per helical unit, and having the phosphate groups near the outside”.

Later Franklin and her students discovered the 2 forms of DNA which they named “A” and “B”. Due to the extensive friction between Franklin and Wilkins, Randall divided the work on DNA. Franklin chose the “B” and later along with her students released the very famous “Photo 51” (X-ray diffraction photograph of B-DNA). which is considered by far as one of the most beautiful X-ray diffraction photographs of any substance ever. She submitted her work for publication on 6 March 1953, just one day before Watson & Crick finished building their model (which was a coincidence as was proved many years later). Her work on DNA finally got published as a trilogy on 25 April 1953 in the “Nature” Journal.

Franklin later shifted to Birkbeck College wherein 1955 she published her first major work on the “Tobacco Mosaic Virus” particles in the “Nature” Journal. Franklin met with Aaron Klung at Birkbeck in early 1954 and their collaboration continued for a long time wherein from 1956 they started publishing regularly about the TMV, cucumber virus 4, and turnip yellow mosaic virus. From July 1957, Franklin also got a huge fund from the NIH of the United States and she started working on Polio viruses too. She was forced to end her work due to her deteriorating health. After her death, her collaborators Aaron Klug and John Finch published a poliovirus structure paper dedicated to her memory.

Franklin’s determination was such that even after being detected with abdominal tumours and having been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she continued her work and published almost 7 papers in 1956 and 6 more in 1957. On 16 April 1958, she died in Chelsea, London. Her work on DNA had been ignored so much that even on her tombstone it was written “Her research and discoveries on Viruses remain of lasting benefit to Mankind”.

After her death in 1958, Watson, Crick & Wilkins won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1962 for their work in DNA and later in 1982 Aaron Klug won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on the structures of viruses. The tragedy is the Franklin had significant contributions in both the works and she was a part of the teams who won the Nobel prizes.

Rosalind Franklin was by far one of the most dynamic female scientists of all time contributing to several fields of biology. After Franklin’s death there were a lot of attempts to give her the due respect and recognition that she deserved but even today when students are taught about DNA and its discovery, the crucial contribution of Rosalind Franklin are often ignored. We hope that Franklin’s work on DNA and viruses both get the due recognition they deserve.

With thanks - this article was written by Sauhard Shrivastava.

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