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James Watson

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Credited with the discovery of the structure of the DNA, James Dewey Watson was an American geneticist and biophysicist born in 1928. Watson was born in Chicago, Illinois in a family of English origin. Watson’s initial education up till the age of 15 was acquired at Horace Mann Grammar School and South Shore High School in Chicago. After having been awarded a tuition-based scholarship, Watson enrolled at the University of Chicago to pursue a bachelor degree in science. Watson graduated from university with a B.Sc. degree in Zoology. With a growing interest in science and genetics and science in particular, Watson furthered his education at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he received his Ph.D. degree in Zoology in 1950. Watson’s Ph.D. thesis was a study of the effect of hard X-rays on bacteriophage multiplication. In Watson’s word he had then had the chance to read Schrodinger’s book What Is Life? – which convinced him to alter his course of study from zoology to genetics and further pursue a career out of it.

After completing his Ph.D., Watson spent a year in Europe, working at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark where he pursued his research on viruses and then subsequently worked with Francis Crick, a Ph.D. student who was also interested in the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), at Cambridge in the Cavendish Laboratory where he studied structural chemistry of nucleic acids and proteins associated with DNA.  All this time, Watson was keen on comprehending the DNA structure and how genes functioned and so he continued his focus on bacteriology.  Watson learned how to work with x-ray diffraction to help determine the structure of the DNA. In 1953, Watson saw that the essential DNA components—four organic bases—must be linked in definite pairs, a discovery that allowed him and Crick to propose the double helix model of the DNA. The DNA double helix consists of two intertwined sugar-phosphate chains, with the flat base pairs forming the steps between them. This model supported the finding that the DNA molecule could duplicate itself. Thus, it became known how genes, and eventually chromosomes, duplicate themselves. Their finding altered the way scientist looked at genetics and life in general.

Both Watson and Crick compiled and published their findings and discovery in the British journal Nature in April–May 1953.

In 1955, Watson was invited to teach at Harvard University as a professor for Biology. At Harvard, Watson continued his research in genetics, this time on RNA and protein synthesis.  In 1962, Watson shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. In 1968 he penned down his achievements in the book The Double Helix which is number seven in the Modern Library list of 100 Best Non-Fiction Books.

Watson also took over the directorship of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 1968 and helped it evolve as one of the finest research center in the country and undertook groundbreaking research on deadly diseases and conditions such as cancers and neurological diseases. Watson also lent his expertise to the Human Genome Project, a project to map and decipher all the genes in the human chromosomes.

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