Life and Work of Francis Crick, Co-Discoverer of DNA's Structure

Francis Crick
Francis Crick is the co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule.

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Francis Crick (June 8, 1916–July 28, 2004) was the co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule. With James Watson, he discovered the double helical structure of DNA. Along with Sydney Brenner and others, he demonstrated that the genetic code is composed of three base codons for reading the genetic material.

Fast Facts: Francis Crick

  • Full Name: Francis Harry Compton Crick
  • Known for: Co-discovered the double helical structure of DNA
  • Born: June 8, 1916 in Northampton, England
  • Died: July 28, 2004 in La Jolla, California, United States
  • Education: University of Cambridge, Ph.D.
  • Key Accomplishments: Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine (1962)
  • Spouses' Names: Ruth Doreen Dodd (1940–1947) and Odile Speed (1949–2004)
  • Children's Names: Michael Francis Compton, Gabrielle Anne, Jacqueline Marie-Therese

Early Years

Francis Harry Compton Crick was born on June 8, 1916 in the English town of Northampton. He was the eldest of two children. Crick began his formal education at the Northampton Grammar School, then attended Mill Hill School in London. He had a natural inquisitiveness for the sciences and enjoyed conducting chemical experiments under the tutelage of one of his uncles.

Crick earned his Bachelor of Science degree in physics from the University College London (UCL). He then started his Ph.D. work in physics at UCL, but was unable to finish due to the start of World War II. During the war, Crick worked for the Admiralty Research Laboratory, conducting research on the design of acoustic and magnetic mines.

After the war, Crick moved from studying physics to studying biology. He very much enjoyed pondering the new discoveries that were being made in the life sciences at the time. In 1950, he was accepted as a student at Caius College, Cambridge. He was awarded his Ph.D. in 1954 for his study of the X-ray crystallography of proteins.

Research Career

Crick's transition from physics to biology was critical to his work in biology. It has been said that his approach to biology was refined by the simplicity of physics, as well as his belief that there were still big discoveries to be made in biology.

Crick met James Watson in 1951. They had a common interest in discerning how the genetic information for an organism could be stored in the organism's DNA. Their work together built upon the work of other scientists such as Rosalind Franklin, Maurice Wilkins, Raymond Gosling, and Erwin Chargaff. The partnership proved fortuitous to their discovery of DNA's double helix structure.

For the majority of his career, Crick worked for the Medical Research Council at Cambridge in England. Later in life, he worked for the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, in the United States.

The Structure of DNA

Crick and Watson proposed a number of significant features in their model of the structure of DNA, including:

  1. DNA is a double-stranded helix.
  2. The DNA helix is typically right-handed.
  3. The helix is anti-parallel.
  4. The outside edges of the DNA bases are available for hydrogen bonding.

The model consisted of a sugar-phosphate backbone on the outside and pairs of nitrogenous bases, held together by hydrogen bonds, on the inside. Crick and Watson published their paper detailing the structure of DNA in the science journal Nature in 1953. The illustration in the article was drawn by Crick's wife Odile, who was an artist.

Crick, Watson, and Maurice Wilkins (one of the researchers whose work Crick and Watson had built upon) were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology for Medicine in 1962. Their discoveries furthered the understanding of how the genetic information from one organism is passed down to its progeny from generation to generation.

Later Life and Legacy

Crick continued to study other aspects of DNA and protein synthesis after the discovery of the double helical nature of DNA. He collaborated with Sydney Brenner and others to demonstrate that the genetic code is made up of three base codons for amino acids. The research demonstrated that, since there are four bases, there are 64 possible codons, and the same amino acid can have multiple codons.

In 1977, Crick left England and relocated to the United States, where he served as the J.W. Kieckhefer Distinguished Research Professor at the Salk Institute. He continued to research in biology, focusing on neurobiology and human consciousness.

Francis Crick died in 2004 at the age of 88. He is remembered for the significance of his role in the discovery of DNA's structure. The discovery was pivotal to many later advances in science and technology, including screening for genetic diseases, DNA fingerprinting, and genetic engineering.

Sources

  • "The Francis Crick Papers: Biographical Information." U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, profiles.nlm.nih.gov/ps/retrieve/Narrative/SC/p-nid/141. 
  • "Francis Crick - Biographical." Nobelprize.org, www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1962/crick/biographical/. 
  • “About Dr Francis Crick.” Crick, www.crick.ac.uk/about-us/our-history/about-dr-francis-crick. 
  • Watson, James D. The Double Helix: a Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. New American Library, 1968.