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How We’ve Tackled the Evolving Science of DNA

“No article we have ever published has been more difficult” than our first feature about the molecule of life, which appeared 42 years ago.”

On April 25, 1953, the journal Nature published a picture that sparked a revolution: the first drawing of the structure of the DNA molecule. That landmark discovery, made possible by the x-ray crystallography work of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, put Francis Crick and James Watson at the forefront of the burgeoning field of molecular biology. Within weeks, the New York Times proclaimed that the discovery “should make biochemical history,” and in the years since, news outlets have published reams about DNA and its importance to unraveling the way life works.

But for its part, National Geographic didn’t make the plunge into molecular biology until 23 years after the discovery of the double helix. For a magazine that had long prided itself on place-driven narratives and photography, grappling with the microscopic world of “the new biology” pushed National Geographic staff at the time to the point of discomfort. It took the magazine more than two years to assemble its first foray into molecular biology, a splashy feature titled “The Awesome Worlds Within a Cell” that ran in the September 1976 issue. Rereading the story today, the relieved sigh the staff must have made as the story went to press is almost palpable. “No article we have ever published has been more difficult, either in the amount of effort and skill that went into its preparation, or in the perseverance readers must bring to it if they are to understand this complex new face of science,” Gil Grosvenor, then National Geographic’s editor-in-chief, wrote in an accompanying letter to readers.

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