Categories: Sanger Science25 April 20133.5 min read

A brief history since 1953: 60 years after Crick and Watson’s discovery

In 1953, Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the structure of DNA, revolutionizing biological research. Credit: NHGRI

In 1953, Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the structure of DNA, revolutionizing biological research.
Credit: NHGRI

25 April 2013

Aileen Sheehy

In a break from our traditional blog style, we celebrate the 60th anniversary of Crick and Watson’s discovery of the structure of DNA by taking a light-hearted look at some of the major scientific breakthroughs over the past six decades.

1953 – Leaving the ruins of World War II behind, modern Britain entered a new era in 1953. While the Queen was being crowned and JFK and Jacqui O were tying the knot, two unlikely lads from the University of Cambridge barged into the Eagle pub to announce to patrons they had "discovered the secret of life". 60 years on, James Watson and Francis Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA, using data from Rosalind Franklin, has revolutionised the world of biology.

1966 – The English fans were shouting victory as the three lions lifted the FIFA World Cup for the first time (and the last time since), the first artificial heart was installed in the chest of Marcel DeRudder in a Houston hospital, and Marshall Nirenberg, Heinrich Mathaei and Severo Ochoa finally cracked the genetic code. Their definition of how the four-letter code of DNA is translated into the 20-letter code of amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins, has underpinned all biomedical research since.

1977 – Disco mania hit the dance floors as ‘Saturday Night Fever’ was released, scientists found Uranus’ rings, and the father of genomics and the Sanger Institute’s name-sake, Fred Sanger, developed DNA sequencing technology at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology. Sanger, known for his problem-solving skills, and more recently for his green fingers, transformed the face of genetics. His method, known as ‘Sanger sequencing’, determines the order of bases in DNA and is still used today, 36 years after its initial discovery.

1986 – As people were screaming ‘the Hand of God’ at Maradona, Kary Mullis’ ‘Eureka’ moment came to life. Three years previously, Mullis stopped his car in the middle of the road in California on his way home from work, entranced by a moment of sheer inspiration. “Tumbling down in 15 minutes” he has described the discovery, Mullis came up with the concept to amplify and copy DNA. This method, known as polymerase chain reaction or PCR, is considered one of the most important methods in the history of science.

1993 – While the TV show ‘Cheers’ said cheers and goodbye to all their fans after 11 seasons, and Jurassic Park spawned a whole new generation of ‘wannabe’ archaeologists and palaeontologists, a handful of staff moved into Hinxton Hall to begin work on the Human Genome Project. The race towards the public human genome had really begun.

1996 – Bill Clinton won a second term in the White House, providing us with four more years of tea-break chitter-chatter (as well as improving economic growth in the US and smoothing out international tensions…), and the world’s most famous sheep was born. Dolly, the first ever cloned mammal, was modified by a team at the BBSRC Roslin Institute in Scotland.

2001 – Our life became a whole lot easier (and more enjoyable) with the launch of Wikipedia and the first Apple iPod. Life became a whole lot easier for researchers also with the announcement of the first draft of the human genome, made freely available. The race was over and the ‘post-genomic era’ had officially begun. The potential benefits of sequencing the human genome have still not been fully explored. It has already dramatically expanded fields of exploration such as molecular medicine and human evolution.

2013 – Over the past 60 years these foundations and discoveries have allowed researchers to influence and empower medical science, to develop new diagnostics and treatments against disease, and learn more about the world we live in.

The past six decades have pushed science far beyond anyone’s expectations. The world of genomics is moving at such speed, we can only speculate about what might lie ahead.

  • If you have any suggestions about major scientific events from the past 60 years, please leave a comment here, or on our Facebook.

Aileen is a press officer in the Sanger Institute’s  Media, PR and Communications Team.