James Watson: Contributions & Double Helix

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  • 0:05 Who Was James Watson?
  • 0:31 Life History
  • 3:39 The Race for the Double Helix
  • 5:50 After Cavendish
  • 7:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jeffrey Sack

Jeff is a Biology teacher and has a Doctorate in Educational Leadership

This lesson will discuss the life and scientific contributions of James Watson, the American biochemist who was part of the team responsible for the discovery of the structure of the double helix. Once finished, review what you learned with a quiz.

Who Was James Watson?

James Watson may be one of the most famous, influential, and controversial people of modern biology. As a member of the team who discovered the structure of the DNA molecule (the double helix), he made his place in history with a brilliant mind, excellence in genetic research, and harsh criticism of his fellow scientists. While nobody can deny the impact Watson's investigations and discoveries have had on the world of biology, some would say he burned many bridges in his career.

Life History

James Dewey Watson was born in 1928 in Chicago, Illinois to James Watson, Sr. and Jean Mitchell. He attended grammar and high school in Chicago, and then received a scholarship to the University of Chicago during his sophomore year. He entered the university and began studying Zoology in 1943. While there, he developed a strong interest in genetics. At that time, molecular genetic research was in its infancy. There were no modern techniques to study DNA as there are today. Watson was essentially coming into the field as it was beginning.

After graduating in 1947, Watson went off to Indiana University to further his studies. He received his Ph.D. in Zoology in 1950 and spent his first summer after graduation in Copenhagen as a Merck Fellow of the National Research Council continuing his research on bacteriophages (viruses that attack bacteria). He was interested in knowing how DNA behaved within the viruses. In 1951, he attended a symposium at the Zoological Station in Naples, Italy, where he met Maurice Wilkins, an x-ray crystallographer who was working in a laboratory at King's College in England. It was after this meeting that Watson changed his thinking and the direction of his research. He was now very interested in the structural patterns of proteins and nucleic acids. He moved to England and began work in 1951.

Wilkins introduced Watson to an English scientist named Francis Crick, who was working at the Cavendish laboratory at Cambridge University. This meeting changed Watson's life. After meeting Crick, Watson discovered that he and Crick shared a common interest in DNA. They both agreed that it should be possible to determine the structure of the molecule. After considering the evidence discovered by Wilkins and another x-ray crystallographer named Rosalind Franklin at King's College, they began their pursuit of what would be one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century.

All of his hard work came to a head in 1953, when he and Crick announced that they had determined that the DNA molecule looked like a twisted ladder, also known as a double helix. They went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962.

While the discovery of the DNA structure was probably Watson's biggest achievement, he was also very active in other fields of research. From 1953 to 1955 he worked at the California Institute of Technology, focusing on x-ray diffraction studies of RNA. In 1955, he went back to Cavendish to work with Crick on the anatomy of viruses. This work led him to additional research on the role of RNA in protein synthesis (the process by which cells make proteins from DNA's instructions). In 1956, he joined the faculty at Harvard University, staying on as a professor until 1978.

While Watson was working at Harvard, he also became a member of the faculty of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. He became director of Cold Spring in 1968 and remained in charge until his retirement in 2007, serving as president and ultimately, chancellor. While here, Watson encouraged the growth of the lab and oversaw the development of many scientific and educational programs.

The Race for the Double Helix

In the early 1950s, there was a lot of effort by the scientific community to discover the structure. It was believed that knowing how DNA looked would lead to knowledge of how it behaved, since structure and function are so closely related in biology. The main players in this race were Watson and his team in England, and an American scientist at the California Institute of Technology named Linus Pauling. While both the Watson and Crick team and the Pauling team were similarly matched in terms of skill, wits, and content knowledge, there could only be one winner.

Watson published his version of the story in the 1968 book 'The Double Helix.' It is hard to say, with any accuracy, if Watson's account is exact, but he was the only member of his team to give a first-hand retelling of what happened. The bottom line is that Watson and Crick, along with Maurice Wilkins and posthumously a number of years later, Rosalind Franklin, were able to beat Linus Pauling to the discovery and were able to get their findings published first.

Watson and Crick were actively building molecular models in their lab, but were constantly disagreeing over where the different parts of the DNA molecule should be placed. Crick would say that the phosphate groups should go on the inside, only to have Watson disagree and say that they go on the outside. This type of disagreement was believed to have been the cornerstone of their relationship and was what made them work well together, because it forced them to see each other's viewpoints.

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