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Berkeleyan

Nobelist James Watson headlines DNA event
Campus welcomes biotech pioneers to a day commemorating discovery of the double helix

| 16 October 2003

 



Admirers of DNA pioneer James Watson clamored for his autograph during a booksigning session that was part of Saturday’s event. The youngster at right proffers a copy of his book DNA: The Secret of Life. Accommodating as he was to well-wishers, Watson had harsh words for those contemporary scientists who don’t yet recognize the significance of the mapped human genome, saying “people don’t accept other people’s discoveries soon enough.”
Peg Skorpinski photo

Laughter, bemusement, and not a little hero worship greeted Nobel Laureate James Watson on Saturday, Oct. 11, as he and a who’s who of fellow laureates, scientists, and biotech pioneers celebrated the biotech industry’s debt to the discovery 50 years ago of the double-helix structure of DNA.

Since Watson and Francis Crick made that historic discovery in 1953, Watson has achieved cultlike status, as evidenced by the mob of students and others who crowded around at every break in search of autographs and photos with the guru.

“Jim is arguably the most recognizable face in science today,” said Robert Tjian, professor of molecular and cell biology and organizer of the symposium, which was sponsored by UC Berkeley, Genentech, Inc., and Tularik Inc. Tjian studied with Watson at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in the mid-1970s, when Watson directed the lab and built it “from a quaint and sleepy biology lab into a powerhouse of biology.”

In a packed Pauley Ballroom, a crowd of some 800 was rapt as the speakers detailed science’s successes in tackling heart disease, the challenges still facing medicine with regard to cancer, and the intriguing novelty of a newly recognized class of disease — prion diseases. Knowledge of the structure of DNA has opened the door to progress in all these fields.

“This is a celebration of basic science and the application of that science,” Tjian said in kicking off the daylong event. “There would be no biotechnology sector without the structure of the double helix, but at the same time, the full implications of the double helix would not have been realized without the biotech industry.”

Watson, in remarks at the end of the day, entertained the crowd with random takes from his career and comments on the current state of science. These included mundane musings about his own genetic heritage, which on the one hand allows him to eat bacon and eggs without fear of a heart attack, but also left him with hereditary bags under his eyes — a defect a plastic surgeon friend remedied for free.

Watson said that he, for one, welcomes the possibility of genetically improving people who may not have been born with the best genetic heritage. That possibility has opened up due to the sequencing of the human genome, a project he championed as director from 1989 to 1992 of the National Center for Human Genome Research at the National Institutes of Health.
“The impact of the human genome project will be every bit as important as the double helix,” he predicted. He lamented, however that many scientists have yet to realize this, saying: “Most people don’t know what we have, they’re going around doing science as before, until someone shows them what to do with it.”

“The same thing happened with the double helix discovery,” he said with characteristic hubris about the discovery that won him and Crick the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. “People were pretty stupid. The odds were that it was going to be right. The reason science moves so slowly is that people don’t accept other people’s discoveries soon enough.”

Humans will be‘model organisms’
As a result, he said, the government is not moving fast enough to follow up on the sequencing of the human genome, a working draft of which was completed in 2001. He advocates a program to sequence the genomes of tens of thousands of people in order to understand the great variation that leads to diverse traits among humans. If we have the sequences of 50,000 people, their individual phenotypes and the right sort of mathematics, he said, we’re bound to begin to associate sequences with traits such as left handedness or even susceptibility to baggy eyelids. Humans will be the model organism of this century, he predicted.

“The NIH hasn’t responded to the genome era,” he said. “We’re not going as fast as we can, we’re not spending the money to find the causes of human variability.”

He also severely criticized the NIH for its proposal to merge the National Human Genome Research Institute with another institute. “I can’t think of anything more stupid than abolishing NHGRI,” he said. “We’re going to have to have big labs” to do the sequencing required in this century. In order for the data to be freely available, it needs to be conducted by the federal government, not private industry.

As Watson reflected on all that has transpired since he and Crick hit upon the double-helix structure of DNA as the only way genetic information could be coded and copied faithfully from cell to cell, he mused about what made them successful and others not.

“I think we were more curious about DNA than anybody else,” he said. “The driving thing about science is curiosity. We didn’t do it to become famous, but if you do [science] well, you become famous.”