American molecular biologist James Dewey Watson is probably best known for discovering the structure of DNA for which he was jointly awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. His long career has seen him teaching at Harvard and Caltech, and taking over the directorship of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. From 1988 to 1992, James Watson was head of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health. His current research focuses on the study of cancer.
But then that spring, Francis Crick was in Cambridge at the chemistry department as a visiting professor and we suddenly got news that we were awarded the Warren Prize, Massachusetts General Hospital's triennial prize. It was worth $3,000 and we would share it. In return for receiving the prize, we would give lectures for an audience in what would prove to be the Boston Science Museum. And Francis was then very, very happy about discoveries on transfer RNA and the amino acids being attached to them and that, you know, amino acids had an anticodon and codon. And so he had really - and the - so anticodon provided the adapter that Francis had in this adapter hypothesis of how the code was read, which he'd had back in January of 1955 and wrote this paper on the adapter hypothesis and passed it out to members of the RNA Tie Club. He never published the paper. And, but then with Mathew Holden’s work on tRNA, suddenly it looked like Francis was predicting. His lecture was, you know, a great lecture, and I didn't really have anything exciting to say except DNA, but that was - well, five years before. So I wasn't going to talk on DNA. And the only thing I really could talk about or I was enthusiastic to talk about was my ideas on how viruses cause cancer. And I gave the lecture and, you know, when it was over I knew that it was not a success because it was too speculative, and people really liked to know things which were true or, you know, soon could be tested and there was no way to soon test my ideas. Ernst Mayr came up, I remember him, and said, oh, he most enjoyed my lecture, but you know, I didn’t enjoy giving it. But it remained - and then six months after I gave the lecture, we got the first indication of the existence of messenger RNA in T2 infected cells. And so suddenly, the lab came very alive and we could study protein synthesis and sort of have a scheme for doing it. So until then, you know, we had, you know, shown the ribosomes were composed of the big and small sub-units which have a big and small ribosome RNA molecule and that magnesium was necessary or seemed to be to make them stick together. But we had no idea why there were two sub-units or anything about it, so - but suddenly, when you added the component of messenger RNA sort of moving across the surfaces, so ribosomes then became factories for making proteins.
Walter Gratzer is Emeritus Professor of Biophysical Chemistry at King's College London, and was for most of his research career a member of the scientific staff of the Medical Research Council. He is the author of several books on popular science. He was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard and has known Jim Watson since that time
Martin Raff is a Canadian-born neurologist and research biologist who has made important contributions to immunology and cell development. He has a special interest in apoptosis, the phenomenon of cell death.