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FEATURE ARTICLE

The First Discovery of DNA

Few remember the man who discovered the "molecule of life" three-quarters of a century before Watson and Crick revealed its structure

Ralf Dahm

Figure%201.%20DNA%u2019s%20double%20helixClick to Enlarge ImageMost everybody knows that DNA contains the blueprint for life. The names of Watson and Crick, the first scientists to figure out the structure of DNA in the 1950s, are also widely recognized. But left obscure in history is the name of the chemist who first isolated the DNA molecule itself. Johann Friedrich Miescher, working in the late 1800s, single-handedly separated out what he called "nuclein" from cells. Using arduous and complicated procedures, Miescher proved that the new substance did indeed come from cell nuclei, and that is was a fundamentally new type of organic molecule unlike anything known at the time. Although Miescher did develop some hypotheses about how "nuclein" might be involved in heredity, he ascribed to the view at the time that any one type of molecule would be too simple to account for all the variation seen within species. It would be about 75 years before the magnitude of Miescher's discovery would be fully understood.


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