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.
The Human Genome Project, serious talk about starting it was in 1986. It was first, you know, proposed in a written article by Renato Dulbecco who said that we needed the human genome before we could understand cancer. And we had just got the power of recombinant DNA and we were, you know, having no difficulty cloning lots of cancer genes. And so initially the Human Genome Project was opposed by most good scientists. And I think part of the reason it was, except for Dulbecco, it was being proposed by, particularly by scientists at the Department of Energy who we didn't think were really first class scientists. So I was afraid that the project would get started under the Department of Energy instead of patronage moneys of the National Institutes of Health. So I worked to get Bruce Alberts to be head of a national research council committee that discussed whether the Human Genome Project should start. And we met in the beginning of the Fall of 1986, right after I got money from a nice person, Michael Witunsky, who was running the McDonald Foundation out of the Aircraft Corporation in St Louis. And he paid for the committee. And he was at the Cold Spring Harbor symposium on the molecular biology of Homo sapiens where Wally Gilbert had written on the board ‘3 x 109 nucleotides x $1 base pair equals $3 billion’. So that was a real sort of conclusion that that was sort of the price range that the project might cost. In fact, by the time it was completed, it could have been done for less cost. But I think about $3 billion was spent throughout the world getting out the first genome and making me even more desirous of, you know, not only to keep the bad guys from getting it, but just I wanted to start it. But since our eldest son Rufus was having severe psychological problems and failing at school and we had the fear he had schizophrenia and understanding schizophrenia which, you know, I read ran in families was probably going to require, just like in cancer, you had to find the bad genes. And the chance of finding the bad gene with the Human Genome Project seemed pretty remote. So I was driven by, finally, a lot of reasons. So I probably personally, you know, wanted it done certainly as much as anyone in the world. So I found the money for the, to get the committee and Bruce chaired the committee and there was really no dissention in the committee. The only surprise was that soon after he joined the committee, Wally Gilbert said he wanted to resign because he was going to form a private company to sequence the genome. He thought it was a more efficient way than a consortium of different labs. But after we raised initial seed moneys from Congress, Wally was never able to raise money for his genome company. It was after he'd been pretty successful forming a new biotech company, Biogen, and so, you know, Wally believed in companies if you wanted to do big projects. I didn't like the company idea because I thought, I didn't want someone to patent the genome and own it. I thought that would make - genetics was already almost inherently controversial with people not liking genetic determination and I thought it best the genome belonged to the people of the world and not to a private company.
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.