Did you know that there was a high quality diffraction of B-DNA made a year before Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling generated photo 51?

Elwyn Beighton and William Astbury generated a nearly flawless diffraction of B-DNA in 1951, a full year ahead of Franklin and Gosling. They never shared or published it.

Did you know that there was a high quality diffraction of B-DNA made a year before Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling generated photo 51?

As with everything on the path to the discovery of the DNA double-helix, timing was everything!

Well, timing, and knowing what you're looking at.

William Astbury might not be a name you've heard before but he's considered a founder of molecular biology.

He was one of the first to use x-ray diffraction to study protein structures.

He was a protege of William Bragg who in 1915 won the Nobel Prize, along with his son Lawrence, for the discovery that x-rays could be used to determine the location of atoms within a molecule.

What the Bragg's found was that if you blasted crystals with x-rays, the x-rays bounced off of the atoms in those molecules to create specific patterns on x-ray film.

Working backwards, they realized they could deduce from those patterns the structure of the underlying molecule!

However, by 1926, Bragg got bored with blasting simple molecules and tasked his graduate student, Astbury, with studying larger fibrous biological molecules like wool.

Since textiles were an important commodity, studying their properties and how to modify them to improve their commercial value was a big deal.

This led Astbury to start a lab in 1928 in textile physics where he made a name for himself diffracting just about every biological fiber in existence.

So, it should be no surprise that in 1937 he turned his attention to the most important biological fiber of all, DNA.

He, along with a talented graduate student, Florence Bell, created the first ever diffractions for DNA and they published the first proposed structure for DNA, what they referred to as a 'pile of pennies,' in 1938.

Unfortunately, Bell and Astbury's work on DNA was cut short by World War II and Astbury didn't return to the problem of DNA until the late 1940's.

But by 1951, Elwyn Beighton, a lab tech turned graduate student, had picked up where Bell left off and produced a nearly perfect diffraction of DNA.

Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, DNA could take on two forms: a totally dehydrated A form, a hydrated B form, or a mix of both depending on the humidity during drying.

The figure above is actually 3 figures. It has Bell's original diffraction of DNA (likely a mix of A and B), Beighton's significantly improved diffraction, and finally, photo 51, Franklin and Gosling's pristine diffraction of B-DNA.

All of the 'what ifs' aside, it's thought that Astbury was too preoccupied with protein structures to recognize the importance of Beighton's cruciform DNA diffraction.

The image was never published, and was lost to history.

Fortunately, the world only had to wait 2 additional years for the structure of DNA to be solved in 1953.

But, I wonder what other scientific breakthroughs have been filed away in dusty lab drawers?