The X-shaped pattern in the photo showed clearly for the first time that DNA molecules had a helical structure, and was key for Cambridge scientists James Watson and Francis Crick to build their famous double-helix model of DNA. This scientific breakthrough was published in 1953 and later gained them a Nobel Prize in 1962, together with Maurice Wilkins at King’s; Rosalind Franklin by this time, sadly, had died at the age of only 37.
While Franklin’s achievements were ground-breaking at the time, her discovery has also led to remarkable breakthroughs in science since. Many of King’s research projects would not exist if it were not for Franklin’s discovery.
King’s Forensics is aptly located in the Franklin-Wilkins Building. The role of DNA in forensic evidence-gathering has become increasingly essential. Without the discovery of DNA, we would not be able to identify individuals from just a handful of cells today.
A recent study led by Prof. Denise Syndercombe Court developed a genetic tool which uses a form of artificial intelligence to analyse a specific set of biomarkers in blood samples. Researchers were able to accurately predict the age of sample donors to within four years of age.
Co-author of the paper, Dr David Ballard, from the School of Population Health & Environmental Sciences, said: “Forensic science has been fundamentally changed by the discoveries that Franklin and co-workers found. The ability to use DNA in a legal setting has revolutionised the way that we can detect and prosecute crime. The intelligence tools that we are developing can take this area even further.”
When Rosalind Franklin joined King’s she was concerned that, in her own words, “I am, of course, most ignorant of all things biological”. She had trained in physical chemistry and X-ray crystallography, whereas John Randall’s vision for his Biophysics Research Group, which he founded in the Physics Department, was for a multi-disciplinary research environment, bringing physicists, chemists, biologists and mathematicians together to solve important biological problems.
That ethos continues to drive research today in the Randall Centre for Cell and Molecular Biophysics, which traces its history back to that Biophysics Research Group, via the Randall Institute and before that the Biophysics Department, in laboratories in Drury Lane.
Rosalind was a superb experimentalist, and it was her attention to sample preparation, and in particular the hydration state of the DNA, that led to the famous Photograph 51. Attention paid to sample preparation is still critical for both X-ray crystallography and the new cryo-EM techniques, despite the technical advances since Rosalind’s time that have, for example, reduced the time taken to collect an X-ray diffraction image from the 62 hours required for Photograph 51, to fractions of a second.
Professor Brian Sutton, from the School of Basic & Medical Biosciences, said: “All of us in “The Randall” are proud of the key role played by Rosalind Franklin, together with Maurice Wilkins and others, in the determination of the structure of DNA, not least those of us “structural biologists”, a term coined by one of Rosalind’s later collaborators at Birkbeck College, Don Caspar, almost all of whom still employ X-ray crystallography in our work. Indeed, one of us, Mark Sanderson, and his group, are engaged in X-ray studies of the topoisomerase enzymes that “un-wind” DNA, an essential requirement of the twisted double-helical structure that was apparent the moment the structure was unveiled.”