Dr. Francis Crick, Co- Discoverer of DNA, Dies at His Home in San Diego at Age 88

Thursday, July 29, 2004; San Diego, CA ( CNN) -- Francis Crick, who along with James Watson discovered the double-helical structure of the DNA molecule, died Wednesday of colon cancer. He was 88. Crick and Watson, along with colleague Maurice Wilkins, were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for their ground-breaking work, which many experts hailed as one of the most important scientific discoveries of the last Century. DNA, sometimes called the blueprint of life, is the bio-agent responsible for heredity, or the passing of traits from parent to child. The discovery in 1953 of its double-helical structure gave birth to the fields of genetic engineering and the biotechnology industry.

When Crick and Watson were scientists at Cambridge University in England in the early 1950's, researchers knew that the nuclei of living cells contained a biochemical called DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, but little was known of its function or structure. The two men were convinced that DNA was the key to understanding the mechanics of heredity, but no one could figure out how it worked.

Building on the work of fellow scientist Rosalind Franklin, and using a technique called X- ray diffraction, Crick and Watson showed that the DNA molecule is shaped like a spiral staircase. Four different chemicals make up the "steps" in the helix and repeat in various sequences, forming a code. Stretches of the code, in turn, form genes, which carry the blueprints for proteins. Known as the "workhorses" of the cell, proteins carry out most of the functions of a living system.

"I will always remember Francis for his extraordinarily focused intelligence and for the many ways he showed me kindness and developed my self-confidence," said James Watson, in a written statement. "He treated me as though I were a member of his family. 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. He will be sorely missed."

Crick was trained as a physicist, not a biologist. He was working on his Ph.D. in physics at University College in London, when World War II began. He served as a scientist at the British Admiralty during the war, designing mines. When he returned to his studies at Cambridge after the war, he became interested in what is now called molecular biology. After the shower of fame that came with the double-helix discovery and subsequent Nobel Prize, Crick continued his research at Cambridge University's Medical Research Council, focusing on the genetics of viruses, protein synthesis, and embryology. In 1977, he moved to La Jolla, Calif., where he served as President of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. There, he turned his attention to the study of the brain and the nature of consciousness.

He is survived by his wife, Odile Speed, three children, and four grandchildren.