Photo 51, a photo that changed history, taken by KCL’s very own Rosalind Franklin.
The one thing I love most about teaching GCSE Biology is the pride I feel when mentioning to my students that I attend the same university where Rosalind Franklin had uncovered the basics of the structure of DNA.
DNA is a simple acronym that represents the “dogma of life”. It stands for ‘deoxyribonucleic acid’, a molecule that functions as a control panel for any living entity. One DNA molecule consists of many units bonded together to form a long strand, similar to how a chain is made of links.
Each ‘link’ in the DNA comprises one sugar molecule, a phosphate group and a nitrogen-containing substance we call ‘base’. There are four different bases in DNA, and it is the sequence of these bases along the DNA chain that forms the ‘code’ by which our cells function the way they do.
It was the research conducted by Rosalind Franklin at King’s College London that enabled the completion of the molecular model of the DNA double-helix.
In 1951, Franklin started her research by taking images of DNA by using X-ray diffraction, a method that involves the firing of X-ray beams onto a crystal and observing the pattern of spots they produce when reflected onto a detecting screen. By examining the patterns made when the beams were fired at different angles against the DNA molecule, it was possible to deduce the chemical bonds and angles within it.
The real breakthrough occurred in 1952, when Franklin, along with her student assistant Raymond Gosling, took an X-ray diffraction photograph of the DNA, dubbed Photo 51, which showed a clear ‘X’ shape. This dispelled the idea of the DNA being a single helix, and welcomed the theory (now a common fact) that the DNA found in cells is a double helix made of two DNA strands.
Franklin’s research notes and Photo 51 were the vital puzzle piece that enabled the scientists James Watson and Francis Crick to finalise the DNA molecular model: a double-helix of two antiparallel DNA strands, with their bases pointing inwards and the phosphate groups pointing outwards.
The discovery of the DNA structure led to better understanding of DNA replication, coding, genetic inheritance and other DNA functions.
Of course, science is never short of potholes. Competitive research programmes are being currently pursued at King’s to apply genetics to a variety of disciplines. They involve the identification of genetic mutations that cause human disease, as well as the development of new gene therapies.
The most recent addition to the Division of Genetics and Molecular Medicine is King’s Centre for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine, which was opened in 2012 to research the self-renewal processes of stem cells, their role in tumour formation and how their functions are controlled by chemical factors.
King’s also conducts an international lecture series, the Rosalind Franklin Lecture Series, where global researchers are invited to deliver lectures in experimental biology and medicine, in recognition of Franklin’s indispensable contributions to the life sciences.
There is always something going on in King’s when it comes to research. When it’s not a platform to learn, it becomes a platform to teach and share experiences that ultimately contribute to the advancement of science.
When you’re not attending lectures or seminars, take some time to explore the campus; notice the buildings named after notable personalities, the statues and scientific models subtly decorating the sites, the spiral shaped staircase in the Franklin-Wilkins Building that strangely resembles the DNA double helix. Even the architecture is filled with the history of people and discoveries that have elevated this university towards excellence.
With so much history between its walls, it’s hard not to be proud of being a part of the commotion that is King’s College London.