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Opening a Trail to Discovery

As Rosalind Franklin University approaches the 100th anniversary of the birth of our namesake, whose data was crucial to the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1952,  the dean of the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies reflects on how the advance has transformed science, the delivery of care and improved health and well-being.

By Professor Joseph DiMario, PhD

Life is determined by the relationships of structure and function among the biological molecules that drive life’s processes. Unquestionably, DNA is the biological molecule that most significantly affects our health, our longevity, our children, our lives, our nature. Dr. Rosalind Franklin’s elucidation of the structure of DNA radically altered how scientists understand the structure-function relationship of DNA. It set the stage for generations of scientists to investigate how the sequence of just four different nucleotides is transcribed and ultimately translated into the overwhelmingly complex biological systems that continuously work within us.

The discovery of the structure of DNA changed and accelerated scientific discovery and health care. Building on that knowledge, the experiments of Meselson, Stahl, Hershey, Chase and Morgan worked out the process of DNA replication and the heritability of DNA along with its observed, expressed traits, which changed the way we view evolution and the characteristics of our own relatives.

From DNA’s primary structure, we have been able to understand how chromosomes and the genes within them are organized with dynamically changing loops, left- and right-handed turns, and so-called “islands”.
Joseph DiMario, PhD

Biology now had a structured source code to explain variation and change both across and within species. Families now could rationally explain why their daughter’s brown eyes look like her grandmother’s eyes. From DNA’s primary structure, we have been able to understand how chromosomes and the genes within them are organized with dynamically changing loops, left- and right-handed turns, and so-called “islands”. We have begun to understand how genes are regulated in time and space, thereby allowing us to comprehend how we, as distinct individuals, develop, grow and age. 

The known structure has allowed us to determine how proteins interact with DNA to regulate its organization and activity and how DNA modifications change DNA accessibility to these regulators. Knowledge of the structure of DNA has also brought us human genome sequencing, which has allowed us to better understand chromosomal and gene structures that affect health and disease. Refined, individualized analysis of DNA can now diagnose and even predict disease, allowing for more effective, individualized treatment plans and preventive approaches. Treatment plans can be formulated based on the presence or absence of specific gene variants, increasing the efficacy of those plans. More impressively, the linear structure of DNA can now be controlled such that genes contributing to disease are altered in individual patients through direct gene or cell-based therapies.

Progress in science and health care is predicated on the foundational discoveries that have shaped our understanding of nature and the human condition. Arguably, the discovery of the structure of DNA has been the most influential cornerstone on which science and health care advances. The discovery has dramatically altered our understanding of ourselves and shaped our future. It has inexorably fulfilled and validated Dr. Franklin’s observation that “Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.”

Posted November 27
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