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The race for the double helix

Dr J. Michael Creeth, who discovered hydrogen bonds in DNA

The discovery of the twisted ladder double helix structure of DNA in 1953 earned Cambridge researchers James Watson and Francis Crick a Nobel Prize.

But very few people realise that just six years earlier the race to identify the ‘code of life’ focused on Nottingham where Dr J. Michael Creeth (Chemistry, 1944) and his colleagues helped lay the groundwork for one of the greatest ever scientific discoveries. 

It was the discovery that yielded ground-breaking insights into the genetic code and protein synthesis. During the 1970s and 1980s it helped to produce new and powerful scientific techniques on which today’s biotechnology industry is founded. Major current advances in science, namely genetic fingerprinting and modern forensics, the mapping of the human genome, and the idea of gene therapy, all have their origins in the discovery.

After graduating from University College Nottingham in 1944, Dr Creeth joined a research group in the School of Chemistry. Following months of hard work, using a high quality DNA sample from fellow student Cedric Trelfall (Chemistry, 1944), it was discovered that the bases of the DNA were linked together by hydrogen bonds.

Speaking in 2003, Dr Creeth said: “In hindsight, we had been given not just a glimpse, but a good view of that particular bonding which is nothing less than the key to life on this planet.”

Three papers on the subject were published in 1947 but the team of Nottingham researchers had already begun to break up. A lack of experience in crystallography among the Nottingham scientists, a factor which proved crucial in the final discovery, almost certainly played its part.

“Of course I was impressed by what Watson and Crick had done. However, I must admit to the lingering thought of ‘why didn’t we think of that’, although practically speaking there were many good reasons why our research couldn’t have taken us to that conclusion.” 

Nevertheless Dr Creeth, who passed away in 2010, was rightly proud of the part he played in the discovery of the building blocks of life.

Join us to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the discovery

On Friday 10 November, the University hosts a special joint meeting of the Biochemical Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the hydrogen bonds that hold DNA together. Alumni are welcome to attend, for a special price of £11, with lunch included. 



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