We live in the age of DNA. No question about it. Understanding this molecule and its connection to our bodies and ourselves is now a central topic in Biology - perhaps the central topic in all of science. Rather than simply explain the structure and function of DNA, I've tried to show how DNA came to be identified as the genetic material. This involves a fascinating set of experiments, inferences, and flat-out guesses that eventually paid off with the double helix model as published by Watson and Crick. But that's only the beginning of the story, only the first act in a a play that's still being written. What Joe and I hope this chapter will do is to spark your interest in DNA and the role it plays in living things. Why? One very simple reason is that understanding DNA is the entry point to the world of biotechnology, where many of the jobs of the future will clearly be found. More than that, however, is that DNA opens the door to understanding the living world itself - and to understanding ourselves.

Watson, Crick, and Franklin

Each spring I teach a large, first year course in general Biology at my University. We have a laboratory experiment each week, as any good Biology course should have. On one of these weeks, however, we do something different. I ask my students to read a book, "The Double Helix," by James Watson. Some of my students are surprised by this, since they don't expect to read a book with such a personal point of view as part of a science course. Once they delve into the story of how the structure of DNA was figured out, they understand exactly why I had them read this book. It's a story with more twists and turns, more suspense, and more personal gossip than just about anything one can find on TV or in the movies. And it's all true!

For teachers, I'd urge you to use this episode as a great way to teach the history and process of science. For students, try to get an idea of the excitement that people like Franklin and Watson and Pauling felt as they got closer and closer to a solution. At its best, this is what scientific discovery is really like. As you will see, science is not a cold, objective, dispassionate activity disconnected from the real world. It's very much a human activity, with all of the faults and failings that implies. It's also a lot more interesting than most textbooks let on!