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1962: Dr Francis Crick, Professor James Watson and Professor Maurice Wilkins

The unravelling of the helical structure of DNA – the basic building blocks of life – is hailed as one of the most significant landmarks of the 20th century. DNA, which stands for deoxyribonucleic acid, is the substance that carries heredity in living things. It is a large chain molecule that is made up of many building blocks.

Watson (MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology), Crick (MRC Molecular Structure of Biological Systems Unit) and Wilkins (MRC Biophysics Research Unit) showed how these building blocks interact in three dimensions to form a long spiralling molecule with a double ‘backbone’ made up of sugar and phosphate blocks. Nitrogen-containing compounds, called bases, protrude from the two halves of the backbone and link together in pairs, so the whole molecule is like a zip.

There are only four types of bases in humans, represented by the letters C, A, G and T, and they are the basis of the genetic code of DNA. This discovery, for which Watson, Crick and Wilkins were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, also helped in the understanding of how DNA replicates.