Passion for science that lies in the genes
The man who cracked the secret of DNA tells the Guardian's science editor,
Tim Radford, about his confidence in the biotech revolution and why he
thinks the left is to blame for scaremongering over genetically modified
The genetics pioneer James Watson, 72, isn't frightened of the misuse of
genetic knowledge. He fears that people will reject genetic screening
because they are afraid to know what the future will hold.
"My chief fear is that the truly ethical problem is the disuse of
genetics, not the misuse," he said yesterday. "Because this term genetic
screening sounds bad, anyone who wants to screen people is taking away
their freedom - whereas predicting a bad future is a good thing, if you
can reverse it. If you can see that someone is going to be killed or raped
you can arrive on the scene and prevent it. It's good to look into the
Professor Watson isn't worried about genetically modified food, either. He
says the DNA in genetic engineering has not so far killed anyone, while
almost anything else that begins with a D - daggers, dogs, dynamite,
dieldrin, drunken drivers and so on - has claimed lives.
He is all for tough patents on DNA that will help to yield useful drugs,
but he is worried that one company will end up with a monopoly on lots of
genes and so slow the research.
He has more investment in the subject than most. In 1953, while at
Cambridge, England, the young American Watson and the Englishman Francis
Crick deciphered the double helix structure of DNA and confirmed that a
long, fragile molecule in the chromosomes carried the genetic code. That
is, it contained the blueprint for all life.
In 1962 he and Crick and Maurice Wilkins of Kings College London - where
the first telltale x-ray diffraction images of DNA were made - shared the
Nobel prize. In 1988 Watson was one of a small group which kicked off the
huge international, publicly funded effort to decipher the entire three
billion-letter DNA code of the human race.
This week he was in Britain for the launch of a new book - and to dedicate
the £50m Franklin-Wilkins building of Kings College London, a building
which salutes the crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, who died in 1958,
and Watson's Nobel partner Wilkins. In the year in which scientists will
announce the first draft of the entire genetic blueprint for humanity,
three of the four who launched the gene revolution are not only alive but
still active in science.
Crick sent a video message from his office at the Salk Institute in La
Jolla, California. Wilkins, 83, still has a role at Kings. And Watson is
president of Cold Spring Harbor laboratory in New York, where he turned to
research into cancer almost 30 years ago.
His new book is called A Passion for DNA. Most people know him for a
science classic written in 1968, The Double Helix, a heart-in-mouth
account of the scramble by hungry young scientists for the biggest prize
The first suggestion that DNA might have something to do with inheritance
was made in 1944. By then Watson was already a biology student: he had
entered university in Chicago at 15. By the time he graduated, he knew
there was only one subject to be in.
The rest is history. Watson and Crick saw a pattern of evidence that
others around them had missed and stole the glory. Watson has always said
he was lucky that the others missed the vital clues.
He wanted to call The Double Helix something else: Honest Jim. Well,
Conrad's Lord Jim was popular at the time and so was Kingsley Amis's Lucky
Jim. The phrase Honest Jim pleased him, annoyed others.
"People questioned it. Was I honest? Did we steal it away from Rosalind
Franklin? Francis did not like the book at all. He saw it as an invasion
of his privacy. But he said: 'Honest Jim? People will take it that you are
telling the honest truth.' I said: 'No, someone who is called Honest Jim
is thought to be a crook. It's a car salesman's name.' It was there to
raise the question of honesty: did we behave in the right way?"
He isn't troubled by recent alarms in Britain about the hazards of
genetically modified foods. He says he first fell out with campaigners in
1975 when biologists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, started working with
"I say it was the left: they were against Nixon, they were against Dow
chemicals, they were against napalm, they were against pollution. So DNA
was going to be another polluter. E coli was going to give women in the
biology building cystitis.
You know, you can't disprove that. You get accusations, but when people
can't give any numbers to a fear, then you shouldn't take it into account.
If they say there is a one in 1,000 chance, you can say: why do you say
there is a one in 1,000 chance?"
He says some people thought anything to do with genetics was bad. In the
sixties he served on one of President Kennedy's commissions, to look at
pesticide use just after Rachel Carson launched her ecological classic
Silent Spring, which argued that DDT and other toxins were wiping out
Watson remembers touring the Mississippi delta, where cotton farmers
sprayed their fields with toxins 10 times a season, and huge billboards by
the roadside urged them to use more, and even more powerful, pesticides.
"So when genetically modified food came you could actually get an insect
resistance, and I thought great! When I read in the paper that they got
some gene which was going to prevent potato blight from wiping out the
Irish again, I thought wonderful!
But someone from the Sierra Club said: 'Think again, it's going to upset
the ecology'. I thought: let's just be straightforward. If you don't have
potato blight it is better for the farmers, particularly if you survive on
. A Passion for DNA: Genes, Genomes and Society, by James D Watson, Oxford
University Press, £18.99
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