Academy of Achievement Logo
Achiever Gallery
  The Arts
  Public Service
 + Science & Exploration
  My Role Model
  Recommended Books
  Academy Careers
Keys to Success
Achievement Podcasts
About the Academy
For Teachers

Search the site

Academy Careers


If you like James Watson's story, you might also like:
Elizabeth Blackburn,
Norman Borlaug,
Linda Buck,
Francis Collins,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Susan Hockfield,
Elizabeth Holmes,
Eric Lander,
Robert Langer,
Robert Lefkowitz,
Linus Pauling,
George Rathmann,
John Sulston,
James Thomson,
Bert Vogelstein,
Ian Wilmut,
Edward O. Wilson
and Shinya Yamanaka

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring James Watson in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Frontiers of Medicine

Related Links:
Nobel Prize

Share This Page
  (Maximum 150 characters, 150 left)

James Watson
James Watson
Profile of James Watson Biography of James Watson Interview with James Watson James Watson Photo Gallery

James Watson Interview (page: 7 / 9)

Discoverer of the DNA Molecule

Print James Watson Interview Print Interview

  James Watson

When you and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA in 1953, did you ever imagine that the human genome would be completely sequenced in your own lifetime?

James Watson Interview Photo
James Watson: I never thought that I would see the human message. We didn't know how to read DNA then. It became possible in the mid '70s. There were people in chemistry who said, "Oh, they can't do that." It was a very pleasant surprise.

How would you explain to the lay person what the Human Genome Project is all about and what your own role has been in this remarkable project?

James Watson: Well, the aim of the human genome project was to get the human genetic message, which is in a nice linear language -- four letters and three billion pages -- and just work out what the book is.

One should see life as consisting of a script, which is DNA, and the actors, which are largely proteins, which are described in the text to great detail. And so you've got a system of a play where you've got a script and you've got the actors, and you could say, "Well, who is more important? Shakespeare or Gielgud? Whose playing now?" And everyone'll go back and say, "The actors are very important but scripts are more important." So we're getting the script for life and, you know, every species has its own script. And initially people said there's just too many letters and it costs too much money. And so starting about 15 years ago we got together and said, "It won't cost that much. We could do it for $3 billion but it would take us 15 years," and you know, back of the envelope calculations was pretty good! It took a little less and its cost was about what we said it would be.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

So you weren't surprised that the genome was sequenced within that 15-year period?

James Watson: Well, it helped when competition came along. People said the script is so important, let's get it first and get it copyrighted or patented and sell it to people who want to read it. That pushed the people who were going to give it away free to work faster, and both efforts came out roughly at the same endpoint a couple of months ago.

How have the improvements in technology facilitated the actual sequencing of the genome?

James Watson: It is the reason we have this technology produced in a combination of academic and commercial laboratories. When we first talked about the human genome project, it was done by hand, just like when we had monks copying books, they make mistakes. So the machines really reduced the mistakes. You don't have a human error process in there and the boredom which leads to errors. So wonderful machines.

The biggest challenge in the wake of the sequencing of the human genome is how this information will be applied. What are the technical difficulties associated with this challenge?

James Watson: It's like trying to read a book when you've only cracked part of the language. So I like to say we have major words and minor words. Words that are used over and over again in specified amino acids and we know those. So we can spot groups of letters that make sense collectively. And then there are a lot of letters that we can't yet make any sense out of. And we know that some don't make any sense. They're there to serve as evolutionary garbage. But a lot of them do, such as, "Does a gene start functioning at the time of conception?" "Does it only begin to work when you're ten years old?" These are the sort of signals we're trying to find now, which is, you have a gene, when, where and sort of why do they work and turn out. So in one sense we're at the start, but at the other hand, we finally can see the actors, and that's a big step.

But you can hardly go to a play and watch it if it has ten actors who are important, so only a couple really are important. Even the simplest cells, they have 500 actors, and just seeing who talks to each other and do they have fights among each other and all this sort of thing. That's a very big job, and at that level it will be understood only in the simplest cells to start with, let's say in bacteria.

The human play, let's say, takes 70 years and has, we guess, maybe around 30,000 actors, and it's going to be a long time before we really can understand the significance of a lot of these scenes that are occurring. When the instructions aren't quite right, something goes wrong in your life. You know, the Dolly -- the famous cloned sheep. Three years into its life it suddenly got an appetite that's unquenchable. So something in its instructions isn't quite right.

This Human Genome Project has some exciting implications for medical reseacrch. What are some of the advances in mdicine we can expect to see in the next decade?

James Watson: We know a lot of the bad actors behind cancers, enough so that I'd say we have a realistic chance to cure most cancers certainly within your lifetime. Maybe not within mine, but if I was 50 years old, I would think maybe that's not going to kill me, maybe we could just die of old age.

What about psychopathology and other mental disorders? We might throw in Alzheimer's disease.

James Watson: Alzheimer's is one where we have had a lot of help from genetics of finding families where the disease occurs early and this has led to finding actors that -- bad actors who we want to control. And so the drug companies are hard at work and the first drug is being tested now. It just might work, you know, to prevent it and I would think In 100 years we should be able to control Alzheimer's. I mean, we have got to control it much sooner because as we live older senility just is --you know, by 90 half the people are out of it. The brain isn't functioning very well but in a few it's functioning perfectly, so it doesn't have to get bad. And I'm sure we'll find out all these things. The next 100 years is going to be extraordinary, what we are going to find out about human beings, and I have no doubt that human lives will be healthier and happier.

What are the possible implications of this research for psychopathology, including things like Alzheimer's disease?

James Watson: I think we're already beginning to get great dividends in understanding the origins of some diseases that affect the brain, but so far we don't have really good drug targets for schizophrenia or manic depressive disease, but I'd be very surprised if we don't have them in ten years, and a lot of people are working very hard to get them over the next couple of years. So without the Human Genome Project I'd say understanding mental disease at it's molecular level would have been an impossible task. But with the Genome Project we're going to understand it, and if you understand it you just have this general optimistic faith that you can do something about it, and that's seemingly the case in cancer and with Alzheimer's we have got some drugs that just might stop the disease.

Haven't they actually have isolated some of the genes that are responsible for at least some forms of Alzheimer's?

James Watson: I think for the majority now. There are some rare "early onset" Alzheimer's where the genes are easy to find, and then there's the "late onset" Alzheimer's, the one that affects most of us or our friends, at least half of us. And a very key gene has been found, so I'm optimistic.

James Watson Interview, Page: 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   

This page last revised on Nov 29, 2013 14:30 EDT
How To Cite This Page