The Mother of All Molecules

The Mother of All Molecules

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The initial disclosure of the molecular structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) by James Watson and Francis Crick appeared as a short communication in the 25 April 1953 issue of the journal Nature. The authors concluded their seminal paper with the unassuming but farsighted assertion that “. . . the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.” It was indeed a breakthrough that transformed our understanding of cellular function and, in the ensuing decades, completely revolutionized fields as diverse as medicine, forensics, bioinformatics, and nanotechnology. In December 1962, almost exactly 50 years ago, Watson, Crick, and Maurice Wilkins, their collaborator at King’s College, received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their momentous discovery. No account of those involved in the determination of the structure of DNA would be complete without mentioning the key role played by Rosalind Franklin, the British biophysicist and crystallographer (1920–1958) whose X‑ray images provided crucial information that Watson and Crick used to build their original model of the iconic molecule.

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The stamp from Gabon illustrated in this note, issued in 2000, commemorates the discovery of the structure of DNA as one of the most important scientific achievements of the 20th century. It is part of a set of three stamps that also feature the invention of the transistor and the development of controlled nuclear fission. In turn, the stamp from Tanzania (1990) celebrates the Nobel Prize awarded to Watson, Crick, and Wilkins and shows the famous DNA double helix in purple, with the linked light blue spheres presumably representing complementary hydrogen-bonded base pairs. It also belongs to an eclectic set of stamps that highlights some of the most important technological advances of the last century, including the breaking of the sound barrier by the Bell X‑1 plane in 1947 and the descent of the bathyscaphe Trieste to the deepest part of the ocean in 1960. It has been less than 60 years since the structure of DNA was uncovered, so we ought to look forward to the many new exciting applications that are bound to emerge in the decades ahead.

Written by Daniel Rabinovich <>.

Page last modified 5 September 2012.

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Chemistry International is the newsmagazine of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). News about IUPAC, its chemists, its publications, its recommendations, its conferences and the work of its commissions and committees is published bimonthly in CI.