What’s in James Watson’s Genome?
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: You were the second person, after Craig Venter, to have your genome sequenced; what did you learn?
James Watson: Not much. I learned that I had a polymorphism, which meant that I metabolized some important drugs more slowly and therefore they would pose greater risk to me if I took too much of them. So that was a very useful fact. And so, if I was you know, suddenly to go psychotic and they gave me an anti-psychotic, unless they were careful they could kill me with it. And you know, you’d just think it was an overdose, but no, it was my genes.
Then I sort of confirmed my hunch that I digested milk poorly, that... if I had a large consumption of ice cream. And I had noticed something was strange when I was working out the DNA structure, I was having constant stomach pains which other people were saying, “Well you’re just nervous about racing or with Linus Pauling.” But it was in fact, I’m still trying to be like an American and drinking a quart a day. And by that time I had lost the... was losing the ability to digest lactose.
Question: What did you choose not to learn about your genome?
James Watson: I chose not to find out whether I had a serious risk for Alzheimer’s. And at the time, you know, it was a little murky. It’s getting much clearer now. So Craig Venter, who put his entire sequence on, it came out that he’s at risk. But he could probably define the risk better by looking at the sequence today as opposed to a few years ago.
Question: How much does it cost to sequence a genome today?
James Watson: Well, I think it’s still, to be honest, about $20,000. There’s always a question about how you do the accounting and so on, but the cost of the reagents that you put into the machine and how often do you use the machine. So, but there’s a lot who believe it’s going to fall by another factor of 10, certainly within 10 years and maybe a soon as three or four. At which point then, the cost of you know, sequence scanning will be essentially trivial and the whole cost will then go toward interpreting it.
Recorded on September 28, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman
The molecular biologist’s genome is the second to ever be sequenced. The results gave him some potentially life-saving information.
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