William Thomas Astbury studied the structures of fibrous materials, including fabrics, proteins, and deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, in England during the twentieth century. Astbury employed X-ray crystallography, a technique in which scientists use X-rays to learn about the molecular structures of materials. Astbury worked at a time when scientists had not yet identified DNA’s structure or function in genes, the genetic components responsible for how organisms develop and reproduce. He was one of the first scientists to use X-ray crystallography to study the structure of DNA. According to historians, Astbury helped establish the field of molecular biology as he connected microscopic changes in the structure of materials to changes in their large-scale properties. Astbury and his images helped scientists to understand the structure of DNA and its role in genetics.

In February 1953, Linus Pauling and Robert Brainard Corey, two scientists working at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, proposed a structure for deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, in their article “A Proposed Structure for the Nucleic Acids,” henceforth “Nucleic Acids.” In the article, Pauling and Corey suggest a model for nucleic acids, including DNA, that consisted of three nucleic acid strands wound together in a triple helix. “Nucleic Acids” was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shortly after scientists came to the consensus that genes, the biological factors that control how organisms develop, contained DNA. Though scientists proved Pauling and Corey’s model incorrect, “Nucleic Acids” helped scientists understand DNA’s structure and function as genetic material.

In April 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick published “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure of Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid” or “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid,” in the journal Nature. In the article, Watson and Crick propose a novel structure for deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA. In 1944, Oswald T. Avery and his group at Rockefeller University in New York City, New York published experimental evidence that DNA contained genes, the biological factors called genes that dictate how organisms grow and develop. Scientists did not know how DNA’s function led to the passage of genetic information from cell to cell, or organism to organism. The model that Watson and Crick presented connected the concept of genes to heredity, growth, and development. As of 2018, most scientists accept Watson and Crick’s model of DNA presented in the article. For their work on DNA, Watson and Crick shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Maurice Wilkins.

Rosalind Elsie Franklin worked with X-ray crystallography at King's College London, UK, and she helped determine the helical structure of DNA in the early 1950s. Franklin's research helped establish molecular genetics, a field that investigates how heredity works on the molecular level. The discovery of the structure of DNA also made future research possible into the molecular basis of embryonic development, genetic disorders, and gene manipulation.

Subscribe to DNA structure