Happy 60th birthday to DNA on 23 April 2013, DNA Day! Today marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of papers in Nature on the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953.


A lot has happened since the publication of the three groundbreaking papers authored by Watson & Crick, Franklin and Gosling, and Wilkins, Stokes & Wilson, and without the discovery of the structure of DNA, none of this would have been possible. Here is a brief review of some of the history of DNA after the discovery of its structure.

In 1955, Arthur Kornberg isolated DNA polymerase, an enzyme that synthesizes DNA and is used in DNA sequencing and PCR.

In the 1960s, Marshall Nirenberg, Har Khorana and Severo Ochoa deciphered DNA’s four-letter code and with Robert W Holley, linked this to protein synthesis, leading to the three receiving the 1968 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 45 years ago, for their interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis.

In 1972, Paul Berg produced the first recombinant DNA, and this was followed by creation of the first genetically modified mouse in 1973, 40 years ago.

Researchers created the first transgenic mouse in 1981, and the first transgenic fruit fly in 1982. In 1983, 30 years ago, Kary Mullis discovered the polymerase chain reaction. In the same year, Michael Bevan, Richard Flavell and Mary-Dell Chilton published a paper on the creation of the first genetically engineered plant, a tobacco plant.

In 1990, the Human Genome project was launched, and the first chromosome, chromosome 22, was completed in 1999. In 1993, 20 years ago, Kary Mullis and Michael Smith shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for contributions to the developments of methods within DNA-based chemistry. In 1998, 15 years ago, researchers sequenced the first entire animal genome, the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans. This was followed by the first plant genome, Arabidopsis thaliana (a member of the mustard family) in 2000. Celgene’s FLAVR SAVR tomato launched in the US in 1994. The tomato was designed to stay firm after harvest, and this was the first time that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had evaluated a genetically modified food.

In 2001, the FDA approved Gleevec (imatinib) for chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML). This specifically targets an enzyme produced by the mutated Philadelphia chromosome. In 2003, 10 years ago, the Human Genome Project Consortium and Celera Genomics completed the sequencing of the human genome. Also in 2003, the first genetically modified pet, the GloFish, was launched in the US. This is a zebrafish that expresses green fluorescent protein (GFP). In 2011, researchers found that DNA doesn’t have to be made up of four bases (A, C, T and G); there may actually eight in total. In 2012, the European Medicines Agency granted UniQure marketing approval for Glybera, a treatment for lipoprotein lipase deficiency and the EU’s first marketed gene therapy.

It has been a busy 60 years for DNA research, and the next 60 years are likely to be just as busy, with the cost of DNA sequencing tumbling, and genetic tests becoming more routine in healthcare. The forthcoming challenges will include dealing with and analysing the sheer quantity of data, and understanding which genetic changes are significant.

Suzanne Elvidge is a freelance science, biopharma, business and health writer with more than 20 years of experience. She has written for a range of online and print publications including FierceBiomarkers, FierceDrugDelivery, European Life Science, the Journal of Life Sciences (now the Burrill Report), In Vivo, Life Science Leader, Nature Biotechnology, New Scientist, PR Week and Start-Up. She specialises in writing on pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, healthcare, science, lifestyle and green living, but can write on any topic given enough tea and chocolate biscuits. She lives just beyond the neck end of nowhere in the Peak District with her second-hand bookseller husband and two second-hand cats.