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Francis Crick: The Secret of Life

Life itself. Francis Crick was fascinated by life. How did life begin? What is the inherent difference between living beings and inanimate objects? What is the nature of consciousness? Crick substantially attacked each of these questions and cracked the genetic code during his long career. Not bad for a man who was an average student and began graduate school in his thirties.

From shoes to mines. Born to a middle-class family in Northampton, England, on June 8, 1916, Francis Crick did not seem destined for greatness, but he was also not fated for the family business of selling shoes. He studied physics at the University College of London, but his graduate career was interrupted by WWII. Crick contributed to the war by helping to design mines and mine countermeasures for the Navy.
DNA calling. When Crick's graduate career resumed, he found a position at Cambridge University studying the structure of proteins (or at least that is what he was supposed to be doing). Instead, his mind wandered to the structure of another molecule, DNA.

Enter Watson. Crick was more of a theorist than an experimentalist, and most of his contributions to science were the result of long and spirited scientific discussions that would result in near prophetic hypotheses. Most of his early colleagues generally thought Crick was much too talkative. However, a young American scientist was eager to engage in such discussions, and, fortunately for Crick, James Watson was also interested in DNA.

The discovery. Inspired by the model making of Linus Pauling, Watson and Crick began making a model of DNA structure. Their first attempt was a failure. The errors in their structure were obvious to Rosalind Franklin, an X-ray crystallographer who had also been working on DNA structure. With the help of one of her photographs of DNA and insights from other researchers, Watson and Crick tweaked their model into its now famous form. It was not immediately embraced by the scientific community, but over time it became clear that they were right. In 1962, they were awarded the Nobel Prize.

Cracking the code. Crick was an outspoken atheist, but his ability to collate data from multiple sources into a coherent, and often accurate, theory could seem at times to be the result of divine inspiration. It was Crick who confirmed the triplet code of DNA, theorized the existence of an adapter molecule (tRNA), and proposed the central dogma of molecular biology, that information travels from DNA to RNA to protein.

Onto the mind. In his sixties, Crick embarked on a new endeavor. He had always been interested in studying the brain and understanding consciousness, and the opportunity came when he moved to California and joined the Salk Institute. He never had a breakthrough in this field comparable to that of DNA, but he theorized a framework for studying consciousness and wrote a book, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. This work occupied him until his death from colon cancer at age 88 on Monday, July 26, 2004.
This page appears in the eBook Essentials of Genetics, Unit 1.3

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