Craig Venter Is a Great Marketer
James Watson is an American molecular biologist best known for his discovery of the structure of DNA with Francis Crick in 1953. He was born in Chicago in 1928 and attended the University of Chicago for his undergraduate degree in zoology. While pursuing his Ph.D at Indiana University, Watson became interested in molecular biology, which led him to the University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory for postdoctoral research. There he met Crick, the two recognized a common interest in discovering the structure of DNA. Watson, Crick, and another researcher Maurice Wilkins would later share the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work in this field.
In 1956, Watson became a junior member of Harvard University's Biological Laboratories, where he quickly advanced to the position of full professor. Then in 1968 he became director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) on Long Island, New York, where he shifted his research emphasis to the study of cancer. Between 1988 and 1992, Watson was also associated with the National Institutes of Health, spearheading the Human Genome Project. In 2007 he became the second person, after molecular biologist Craig Venter, to have his entire genome sequenced. Watson remained involved with CSHL, as president and later as chancellor, until 2007, when he retired following a controversy over comments he made claiming blacks are less intelligent than whites.
Watson has written many books, including the seminal textbook "The Molecular Biology of the Gene" (1965), his bestseller "The Double Helix" (1968) about his discovery of the DNA structure, and his memoir "Avoid Boring People" (2007).
Question: Is Craig Venter a great biologist or a great marketer?
James Watson: Well, he’s certainly a great marketer. He’s highly intelligent and he certainly pushed us toward completing the human genome project sooner than we would have otherwise, and it was a very good thing he existed. Though, at the time, I feared his winning because then the human genome project would belong to... the data belong to his company. And I thought that was just going to slow things down. So normally I’d like, you know, data to be obtained as fast as possible, but not if it went into private hands. You know, some DNA sequences have been patented and monopoly situations which have basically slowed down research and have made medical testing more expensive.
Question: Is Venter’s creation of synthetic life as game-changing as he has painted it to be?
James Watson: I don’t think about it at all. To me it’s not. But I’m not a chemist, and I’ve been so focused on getting enough knowledge so we can cure cancer that I’ll just stay focused on that and let other people... I don’t think we’re going to, you know, this idea of creating a new form of life, we’re just making a very close mimic to what already exists. So I wouldn’t say it’s a new form of life at all. It’s just a very... but always a question is, could there be a life form, you know, basically in some inaccessible place. You know, like deep in the oceans where a form of life which is totally dependent on RNA exits. That would be, you know, a bombshell of unbelievable proportions.
And so if someone said they found that, I would just say: "Wonderful." But I don’t expect them to find it. And so, and then you’d know if you could be in another solar system there might be other forms of life, but again, I only like to think about things which I know we’ll have a chance of knowing whether we’re right or wrong. I never could read science fiction. I was just uninterested in it. And you know, I don’t like to read novels where the hero just goes beyond what I think could exist. And it doesn’t interest me because I’m not learning anything about something I’ll actually have to deal with. So, where you would put Frankenstein, I don’t know, but he never intrigued me, I must confess. You know, in a movie you can make up those sort of things, but... well a lot Steven Spielberg just turns me... and the whole Harry Potter thing, I just don’t want to watch it because to me it’s not reality.
Recorded on September 28, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman
Synthetic life is just a close mimic to what already exists—it isn’t a truly new form of life, Venter’s human genome rival says.
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