DNA's double helix discovery turns 60 – how monumental is it, really?

Illustration for article titled DNAs double helix discovery turns 60 – how monumental is it, really?

In April 1953, Francis Crick and James Watson published an unassuming one-page research paper with a finding many claimed would "revolutionize biological research": the double helical structure of DNA. But how revolutionary has the discovery been, really?


In a retrospective published over at Project Syndicate, Emeritus Professor of Medical Ethics and Humanities at the University of London Donna Dickenson asks a thought-provoking – if contentious – question: After 60 years, have Watson and Crick's findings "really had the transformative impact that the world expected?"

She writes:

The media marked the publication’s 60th anniversary with much fanfare, hailing the breakthrough that “ushered in the age of genetics,” and calling it “one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time.” The British newspaper The Guardian featured the headline, “Happy Birthday, DNA! The golden moment that changed us all.”

To some extent, they are right. The finding forms the basis of genetics and has opened up promising new research areas, such as synthetic biology, in which biological systems are created or modified to perform specific functions. Likewise, it has facilitated important innovations, such as pharmacogenetic cancer treatment, in which drugs target specific genetic defects within cancer cells.

Moreover, DNA has acquired a certain mystique in popular culture. According to Dorothy Nelkin and Susan Lindee, it has become a sacred entity – the modern equivalent of the Christian soul, an individual’s essence. While some forms of biological determinism, such as the belief that race or gender dictates a person’s destiny, have been widely rejected, the idea that a person can be genetically predisposed, say, to get into debt, become a ruthless dictator, or vote regularly in elections remains socially acceptable.

But, almost from the beginning – and most intensely since 1971, when Time magazine published a special section entitled “The New Genetics: Man into Superman” – science and society alike have tended to overestimate the impact of genetics. When the Human Genome Project published the first draft of the fully sequenced human genome in 2000, Henry Gee, an editor of the journal Nature, predicted that scientists would be able “to alter entire organisms out of all recognition to suit our needs and tastes” by 2099. “We will have extra limbs, if we want them,” he asserted, “maybe even wings to fly.”

Thirteen years later, Gee’s prediction looks increasingly unlikely, with the Human Genome Project so far having failed to meet expectations. Indeed, in 2010, the science writer Nicholas Wade lamented that, a decade after the project was launched, geneticists were “almost back to square one in knowing where to look for the roots of common disease.”


Read the rest of Dickinson's piece over at Project Syndicate.

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I have a stupid but honest question: How much of current genetic research is made possible due to us knowing that DNA has a double helix structure, as opposed to us knowing, for instance, that DNA is composed of 4 bases arranged into base pairs that always match in a certain way? As far as I can tell with my limited molecular biology knowledge, we've done far more by manipulating and cutting and cloning DNA with our knowledge of base pairs and sequences than with the knowledge that DNA twists in a double helix. Maybe Watson and Crick made both these discoveries, and people just summarize by saying they discovered the double helix structure of DNA?