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DNA decipherer Francis Crick dies

Francis Crick, who with James Watson discovered the spiral, “double-helix” structure of DNA, has died at the age of 88.
Francis Crick, shown in a 2003 photo, won the Nobel Prize for his research on the "double-helix" structure of the DNA molecule.Denis Poroy / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Nobel Prize-winning scientist Francis Crick, who co-discovered the spiral, “double-helix” structure of DNA in 1953 and opened the way for everything from gene-spliced crops and medicines to DNA fingerprinting and the genetic detection of diseases, has died. He was 88.

Crick died Wednesday after a battle with colon cancer, according to the Salk Institute, the research body where Crick worked in recent years.

The British-born Crick was 36 and working at the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory in 1953 when he and the American-born James Watson, just 24, struck upon the idea that the DNA molecule resembles a twisted ladder.

After making the discovery, Crick walked into a Cambridge pub and announced that he and Watson had “found the secret of life.” But only a few people at the time “even thought it was interesting,” Crick once said, and it took years before the groundbreaking discovery was firmly accepted.

Laid the foundation for biotech industry
Decades later, the discovery’s impact can be seen everywhere. It laid the foundation for the biotechnology industry, enabling scientists to engineer bigger tomatoes, doctors to pursue gene therapy to treat disease, and police to solve crimes through DNA evidence.

Biotechnology is a $30 billion-a-year industry that has produced some 160 drugs and vaccines, treating everything from breast cancer to diabetes. Seven million farmers in 18 countries grew genetically engineered crops last year, allowing them to grow food with fewer pesticides.

“It’s almost too difficult to pay him high enough tribute for what he contributed,” said Stanford University scientist Paul Berg, who won the Nobel in chemistry in 1980 for his pioneering work with genetic engineering.

Crick’s work “helped to usher in a golden age of molecular biology,” said Lord May of Oxford, president of Britain’s academy of scientists, the Royal Society.

Crick and Watson were awarded the Nobel in medicine in 1962.

Watson’s 1968 best seller “The Double Helix” told how he and Crick used bits of wire, colored beads, sheet metal and cardboard cutouts to construct a 3-D model of the molecule.

Deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, is made up of four chemical building blocks, known as “bases.” Each “rung” in the twisted ladder is made up of two bases, and the various combinations of bases and the order in which the rungs are arranged spell out the information stored in genes.
Building on their work and that of others over the decades, scientists can now alter genes to breed out disease and breed in desired traits.

That newfound power has stirred ethical debates, but Crick said there was no way in the 1950s that he could have foretold modern DNA developments.

“Think of the effect television has had worldwide on politics,” he said. “You can’t possibly expect the man who invented the transistor to have seen that.”

Watson hails research partner
In a statement Thursday, Watson hailed Crick “for his extraordinarily focused intelligence and for the many ways he showed me kindness and developed my self-confidence.”

“He treated me as though I were a member of his family,” Watson said. “Being with him for two years in a small room in Cambridge was truly a privilege. I always looked forward to being with him and speaking to him, up until the moment of his death.”

In person Crick was provocative, quick-witted and charming, though he rarely consented to interviews. He was averse to attention of any sort, he said, not because he was anti-social but because it cut into his thinking time.

Unlike many scientists, Crick did not spend his days toiling in a lab or instructing students. Instead, he read and mused in his Salk Institute office overlooking the Pacific Ocean, putting in full days well beyond retirement age. He had come to Salk after resigning from the Cambridge faculty in 1977.

Watson and Crick benefited from work by researchers Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin of King’s College in London. Wilkins shared the Nobel with the two men; Franklin died in 1958. Nobel prizes are not awarded posthumously.

From mine-builder to biochemist
Francis Harry Compton Crick was born in Northampton, England, in 1916 to a shoe factory owner and his wife, who bought their young son a children’s encyclopedia to help answer his many science questions. He studied physics at University College of London and then built underwater mines for the British government during World War II.

After the war, Crick became interested in “the division between the living and the non-living” and decided to teach himself biology and chemistry.

Among Crick’s writings was “Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature,” a book suggesting that the Earth began when microorganisms were dropped by a spaceship from a higher civilization. In another treatise, Crick proposed that dreams exist to let the brain do some housecleaning, to clear itself for the next set of tasks.

Crick acknowledged that some of his postulations were offbeat and speculative. But, he told The Associated Press in 1994, “A man who is right every time is not likely to do very much.”

Crick is survived by his wife, artist Odile Speed; three children; and four grandchildren. The family will hold a private funeral service, his wife said.