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Celebrating DNA and the History of the Double Helix

April 25 is National DNA Day, a day that commemorates the 60th anniversary of DNA's double helix discovery in 1953 and the completion of the human genome project in 2003. We all boil down, genetically, to chains of DNA—each of us with an individual DNA sequence. Take time this week to talk with your students and kids about DNA, its history, the scientists who helped crack the code, and ways that students at all levels can get hands-on with DNA-related science.

DNA structure double helix

DNA's familiar "double helix" structure is shown above in the illustration from the U. S. National Library of Medicine. This week marks the 60th year since the first identification and modeling of DNA's structure. Celebrate the molecule that encodes all life with hands-on science activities and exploration. Kids of all ages can learn more about DNA!

Family DNA Activity

The Genes in a BottleTM kit from Bio-Rad Laboratories makes DNA exploration a recipe for cool family science fun! Pair the kit with our project to guide the activity, and then capture and preserve your DNA in a necklace that puts your genetic code out there for everyone to see! See "DNA Show and Tell: Biotechnology You Can Wear Around Your Neck" for more information or check out the kit at Amazon.com.

Women in Science: Rosalind Franklin

Are you curious about Rosalind Franklin and her role in the discovery of the structure of DNA? Franklin's story has been given new light in recent years. The following books and film offer more information:

When it comes to advancing understanding of genetics and genomics, the discovery of DNA's structure stands as one of the most important turning points in science history. DNA is the blueprint for all organisms, from tiny bacteria to huge whales and long-extinct T. rex dinosaurs.

DNA, and the information it encodes, not only makes each individual organism unique, but also is responsible for certain similarities and traits in groups of organisms. A rose smells the way it does because of DNA. The color of your eyes has something to do with DNA. Whether or not you are at a higher risk of certain health problems may boil down to certain genetic markers you have or do not have. Although genomes (the sum total of DNA needed to encode an organism) are usually copied and acted on in predictable ways, occasionally these mechanisms go awry. Individual stretches of DNA can change or be altered. Transformations, mutations, and other errors in a person's DNA may result in differences in how people respond to a medicine, for example, or may, over long evolutionary time, result in entirely new species.

Encoding the template for a whole organism sounds like a lot of responsibility for a single kind of molecule, but deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) does just that!

Finding the Double Helix

There were many scientists involved in identifying and isolating DNA and tying it to understanding of heredity and chromosomes. The history of DNA-related discoveries and breakthroughs dates back to the first isolation of DNA by Friedrich Miescher in 1869. Miescher extracted a DNA sample from cast-off, pus-covered bandages. It sounds kind of gross, but Miescher's discovery fueled further research and inquiry. Until the structure of the DNA molecule was established and modeled, however, scientists were unable to fully explain and further explore the role of DNA.

That all changed in 1953.

The publication of both Photo 51, an x-ray diffraction photo (taken in 1952) showing the crystalline structure of DNA, and of a series of papers describing the structure of DNA in Nature in 1953 was a pivotal moment in science. Photo 51 was taken by Rosalind Franklin, a scientist working to create a crystal of the DNA molecule that would enable x-ray diffraction studies and, she hoped, enable her to deduce the structure of DNA. The x-ray pattern captured by Photo 51 revealed, for the first time, the ladder-like structure and winding helix shape we now associate with DNA.

The findings published in the same 1953 issue of Nature as Franklin's photo were from James Watson and Francis Crick. After seeing Franklin's photo, Watson and Crick were able to make a model of DNA that showed the molecule's structure. In 1962, Watson, Crick, and Maurice Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their research on DNA. (Franklin, whose photo may have cracked the code, died in 1958, her contributions then largely unacknowledged.)

April 25 is National DNA Day, a day that commemorates the 60th anniversary of the double helix discovery in 1953 and the completion of the human genome project by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) in 2003.

Breaking It Down

You may have played with a model of the DNA structure, or maybe you wear a visual representation on a t-shirt or have a poster or model hanging on your bedroom wall. A helix is defined as "an object having a three-dimensional shape like that of a wire wound uniformly around a cylinder or cone." In most DNA, two helical strands are wound together creating a double helix. Individual DNA molecules (or strands) are each constructed of two long polymers, chains of repeating units made up of pairs of four nucleotides that appear in various repeating combinations. These nucleotides are adenine ("A"), thymine ("T"), guanine ("G"), and cytosine ("C"). These letters give scientists the ABCs (or ATGCs) of DNA—it's a four-letter alphabet which underwrites all known life on Earth!

Armed with knowledge of the structure, composition, and pattern of DNA strands, scientists are able to tackle questions both about history and about the future. Students can, too!

Students "Do" DNA

From fun home activities that let students and parents explore (and show off!) their own DNA to sophisticated projects for advanced student exploration, Science Buddies has a range of Project Ideas that enable students to better understand the role of DNA and encourage them to explore questions related to genetics, genomics, biotechnology, and bioinformatics. You might be surprised at what your fruits and vegetables drawer will yield in terms of visible DNA discovery, but that's just the tip of the genome!

Some DNA-related Science Buddies Project Ideas to explore:

Extend the Conversation

There are still questions for scientists to ask and answers to be unlocked through further study of DNA. Just last year, samples of DNA with four strands were discovered. See this article in Nature to shake up your understanding of DNA just a bit. What happens when you square or quad your genetic code?

See also Science Buddies Project Ideas in genetics and genomics.

Science Buddies Project Ideas in biomedical technology are sponsored by the Amgen Foundation.
Science Buddies Project Ideas in biotechnology techniques are sponsored by Bio-Rad Laboratories.


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