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.
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