Sunday, July 24, 2011

Remembering Rosalind Franklin: The Dark lady of DNA

Rosalind Franklin was born in London on 25th July 1920. She graduated in Chemistry and Physics in Newnham College in 1941.Rosalind Franklin (25th July 1920-16th april 1938) was invited to Kings College, London to study protein crystallography, which soon became oriented to DNA. The leader of the team assigned her to work on DNA with a graduate student Ray Ghosling. The laboratory's second-in-command, Maurice Wilkins, was on vacation, when he returned, their relationship muddled. He assumed she was to assist his work; she assumed she'd be the only one working on DNA. They had powerful personality differences as well: Franklin direct, quick, decisive, and Wilkins shy, speculative, and passive. This would play a role in the coming years as the race unfolded to find the structure of DNA.rosalind                                                         The dark hair and eyes gave her the name Dark lady

Franklin used the X-ray Diffraction to capture DNA, a molecule too small to image using regular photography. She was able to take a photograph of DNA, the now famous photo of ’51. She extracted finer DNA fibers than ever before and arranged them in parallel bundles. All of these allowed her to discover crucial keys to DNA's structure. Wilkins shared her data, without her knowledge, with James Watson and Francis Crick, at Cambridge University, and they pulled ahead in the race, ultimately publishing the proposed structure of DNA in March, 1953. James Watson experienced the eureka moment when shown the photo. He recalls, “The instant I saw the picture my jaw fell open and my pulse began to race… the black cross of reflections which dominated the picture could arise only from a helical structure... mere inspection of the X-ray picture gave several of the vital helical parameters.”

Lynne Osman Elkin, a professor of biological sciences at California state university says, “She was very close. She had all the parameters of the helical backbone. She was the one who figured out that there were two forms of DNA, which made solving the whole structure possible. She had figured out that backbone of the A form is anti-parallel. She even made the 34 angstrom measurement. It wouldn't have been very long before she figured out that the strands were anti-parallel as well.” Watson, in 1965, said, “Had she been alive she would have won the Nobel as well”Photo_51                                                                the photo of ‘51, one which later became the backbone of DNA structure

Franklin’s tenure at the Medical Research Council at King’s College ended in an unfortunate note. As a condition to agreeing to transfer her fellowship to Birkbeck, Randall (King’s lab director) made Franklin promise not to perform additional experiments on DNA or even to think about DNA. Not only this, she was forced to leave her diffraction equipment behind at King’s and to leave the work of confirming DNA’s structure to Wilkins. Personality conflicts and, added to them, her status as a woman scientist, were the major sources of Franklin’s difficulties at King’s College. She was then labeled as “belligerent”, as Watson puts it in his book The Double Helix. His irreverence to Franklin did not allow him to see how much of her work had influenced the DNA model he and Crick had proposed. As an effective device to avoid acknowledgment Watson promoted the idea of her inability to interpret her own data and that it is they who rescued the DNA data. He even mentioned manytimes that they, Watson, Crick and Wilkon’s(who happens to be watson’s brother in law?), rescued the DNA model from ‘rosy’.

She didn’t object. She was happy that her work led to the better of mankind. Franklin continued her brilliant scientific career at Birkbeck College, contributing to the understanding of the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV). On her letter to her friends Anne and David Sayre, she wrote; “For myself, Birkbeck is an improvement on King's, as it couldn't fail to be. But the disadvantages of Bernal's group are obvious - a lot of narrow-mindedness, and obstruction directed especially at those who are not Party members. It's been very slow starting up there, but I still think it might work out all right in the end. I'm starting X-ray work on viruses (the old TMV to begin with) and I'm also to have somebody paid by the Coal Board to work under me on coal problems more or less the continuation of what I was doing in Paris. But so far I've failed to find a suitable person for the job.”

Rosalind Franklin never knew that Watson and Crick had gotten access to her results. At the time of the Watson and Crick publication and afterwards, Franklin appears not to have been bitter about their accomplishment. Franklin moved on to work on an even more challenging problem: the structure of an entire virus, called the Tobacco Mosaic Virus. Her subsequent publications on this topic would include four more papers in the journal Nature. Rosalind Franklin was friendly with both James Watson and Francis Crick, and communicated regularly with them until her life and career were cut short by cancer in April of 1958, at the age of 37. Franklin died in 1958 without much recognition, because of ovarian cancer, which probably was due to over exposure to X-rays. As Nobel prizes were never given posthumously then, Watson, Crick and Wilkins were awarded Nobel Prize in 1962. While she might have won the Nobel Prize had she been alive (or wouldn’t have.. who knows?). After her death, Watson and Crick made abundantly clear in public lectures that they could not have discovered the structure of DNA without her work. She died with a reputation around the world for her contributions to knowledge about the structure of carbon compounds and of viruses. While she would be celebrating her 79th birthday today, the Dark lady of DNA died without any recognition.

(a trimmed version of this article made it to gen-next of Repulica National Daily on 25th july 2011)

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