2 Nobel Prizes: What Rosalind Franklin's Work on DNA and Viruses Should Have Won

Rosalind Franklin is most known for her role in first capturing the blueprint for life. Her efforts provided the evidence to deduce the double helix structure of DNA.


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Rosalind Franklin is most known for her role in first capturing the blueprint for life. Her efforts provided the evidence to deduce the structure of DNA. Unfortunately, she's also known as a scientist who has been cheated out of receiving due credit for her work. No one has lost out quite so famously as Franklin. Had she not died so young, at the age of 37, she would have likely shared in not one, but two Nobel Prizes.

Franklin's genius showed early on. Her aunt Helen Bentwich, remarked to her husband: "Rosalind is alarmingly clever – she spends all her time doing arithmetic for pleasure, and invariably gets her sums right." Her family would nurture her scholastic ability, sending her to St. Paul's Girls' School.

It was at Cambridge where she would learn about X-ray crystallography — a technique which reveals the atomic structure of matter in its crystalline form. Later on in her career, she would apply the techniques of X-ray diffraction to help her determine the structure of DNA.

Her dedication to the sciences was so great, her family accused her of making it her religion. She replied, “In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall succeed in our aims: the improvement of mankind.”

At the time, many scientists had thought the structure of DNA had a structure similar to that of a corkscrew, but no one had the proof. A race was on to become the first to deduce the structure of DNA.

It would ultimately be Franklin, who led a research group at King's College in London, that would first see DNA's true design. She used X-ray diffraction to produce a fine beam of X-rays with exposures lasting for 100s of hours, refracting onto a piece of film. It was through these methods her team eventually produced the famous X-ray image, Photograph 51. The defraction image proved the DNA structure was indeed a double helix. However, this image wouldn't stay secret for long. Maurice Wilkins, who had also been working on uncovering the structure of DNA at King's College independent from Franklin, shared the legendary photo with James Watson without Franklin's knowledge.


Up to this point, Watson and Crick had only been speculating on the structure of DNA--building models. By working off the data Franklin had patiently compiled over years at King's college, Watson and Crick used her to lay claim to their own discovery. All the experimental work that led to their great leaps about how DNA replicates was brought to them through the efforts of Rosalind Franklin. It's here we must ask, what would Watson and Crick have had without Franklin's data?

Over 5 years ago, Big Think asked Watson what Franklin's role was in the discovery of DNA. “She provided some crucial pieces of information,” he said. “I don't think her name deserved to be on the paper; she fought bitterly saying it wasn't a helix.” How he casts Franklin is less than flattering here and in his book The Double Helix, which was published after Franklin's death back in 1968.

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.