Celebrating the Discovery of DNA
For National DNA Day in the UK we’re celebrating one of the most important scientific discoveries of all-time! From the identification of the molecule in the 1860s to confirmation of its structure in 1953, the discovery and understanding of DNA has helped propel life science research to extraordinary places.
We asked some of our previous interviewees about the discovery of DNA, what it means to them and why they consider it to be the most significant scientific discovery to date.
Unravelling the building blocks of life
Swiss physician Friedrich Miescher was the first scientist to identify DNA as a distinct molecule in 1869 when his experiments on the chemical composition of leukocytes helped him to isolate ‘nuclein’. However, it was to be another 80 years before the importance of his discovery was truly recognised.
Miescher’s work was just the first step in a journey undertaken by numerous researchers who built upon his findings and over the following decades continued to unlock the secrets of DNA. Most significantly, its helix structure was finally determined by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953, with the help of Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin a few years previously. Their work is commonly thought to be one of the most significant findings in the history of science.
When asked her thoughts on great scientific discoveries, Kate Manley of the Department of Urology at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals told us: “I know it’s a cliché but Watson, Crick, Wilkins and Franklin’s discovery of DNA in 1953 has to win this accolade, no contest! It is the foundation of our quest to understand the human genome and the origins of the modern era of biology.”
Leonardo Ferreira of the Medical University of South Carolina acknowledged the role played by Oswald Avery, Colin Macleod and MacLynn McCarty in the DNA story. He said: “I think the greatest scientific discovery of all time was the finding by Avery, MacLeod, and McCarty in the 1940s that DNA is the genetic material. Figuring out the structure of DNA (hinting at how DNA encodes information and replicates), cracking the genetic code (revealing how DNA instructs cells to build proteins), and cellular reprogramming (giving us the capacity to change how cells read their DNA and in process change their identity) deserve honorable mentions, but there’s just something extraordinary about knowing exactly what chemical our cells use to keep their instructions and thus being able to purify it and hold it in a test tube in your hand.”
DNA and its impact on science research
The understanding of DNA has not only changed the field of life science forever, it has also had a huge impact in other research areas, such as forensic science. Lucy Lewis of Cardiff & Vale UHB told us: “So much of our modern-day research revolves around genetics: from pinpointing the causes of genetic disorders, such as Huntington’s disease, to manipulating the genome of animal models and observing how this affects their behaviours. Even outside of life sciences, DNA profiling has changed the world of forensic science to improve the criminal justice systems.”
Dr Samantha Murray, a postdoctoral fellow at Lincoln University, New Zealand, explained the importance of understanding DNA in curing diseases: “Understanding the basis of an animal’s genome and how DNA encodes proteins is crucial to further understanding what goes wrong in disease and how to potentially fix it… without understanding the makeup of DNA we would never be able to target harmful genes in that way, let alone know what the harmful genes are!”
Summer Rosonovski, is a Community Outreach Officer at Europe PMC and a passionate science communicator who has delivered talks and produced YouTube videos on the subject of DNA. She told us what excites her about DNA within science research: “Not only did it take nearly a century’s worth of research to be suggested, but it's an essential basis to many scientific discoveries since, is a crucial research tool, is frequently used as a forensic tool, is essential for multiple medical diagnostics, and is even being exploited as a designer material for nanotechnology!”
An exciting future for life science research
The final word on the importance of DNA goes to Hello Bio’s own Managing Director Steve Roome who told us how excited he is for the future of DNA research: “Since its discovery nearly 150 years ago this awesome molecule has attracted the attentions of a myriad of eminent scientists. Thanks to the discovery of DNA, we are now in a very exciting time where we are really starting to make progress towards truly understanding life and curing disease.”
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