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New twists in double helix discovery story are uncovered
Date:9/29/2010

Cold Spring Harbor, NY -- The story of the double helix's discovery has a few new twists. A new primary source -- a never-before-read stack of letters to and from Francis Crick, and other historical materials dating from the years 1950-76 -- has been uncovered by two professors at the Watson School of Biological Sciences at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL).

The letters both confirm and extend current knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the epoch-making discovery of DNA's elegant double-helical structure, for which Crick, James D. Watson (now CSHL's chancellor emeritus) and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962. Unlike the structure itself, which amazed even its discoverers in its simplicity, the story of the discovery has revealed a complex tangle of people, ambitions and institutional politics behind the process of scientific investigation.

"It's primarily the insights these new letters provide about the personalities of the discoverers that people will find most fascinating," says Alex Gann, Ph.D., who along with Jan Witkowski, Ph.D., uncovered the new Crick materials and co-authored a paper on them that appears in the journal Nature Sept. 30.

Following the publication of landmark works including Watson's confessional The Double Helix in 1968 and Horace Freeland Judson's The Eighth Day of Creation 11 years later, most historians have been content to believe that the archives had been fully explored and would not reveal much more about the double helix story. But 34 of the newfound letters are between Crick and Wilkins and draw attention to what Gann and Witkowski have described as Wilkins' "tortured soul" during the critical period 1951-53, when Watson and Crick were alternately put on, taken off and then restored to an effort to discover DNA's structure.

"We are really between forces which may grind all of us into little pieces," Wilkins wrote to Crick in one letter. As Witkowski e
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Contact: Peter Tarr
tarr@cshl.edu
516-367-8455
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Source:Eurekalert

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