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Realizing we had determined the structure of DNA

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Complementarity and my place in history
James Watson Scientist
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You know, if Pauling and Delbruck hadn’t written a paper the replication would be best involved complementarity. And that paper was in ’39. So the, so the idea had been there. So the moment you say, yeah, this has separated two strands-
What about complementarity of RNA to DNA? When did that? Because you had already written DNA RNA the protein.
No, no, I, so I think I tried to take an x-ray, I know I did, RNA x-ray photographs that spring. So I was thinking that way, you know, because, you know, protein synthesis occurred in the cytoplasm DNA in the nucleus otherwise you, something had to take it out there. So, you know, it was the simplest idea. I wouldn’t have, you know, felt, there would be so many ways you could get around it, maybe there was another form of DNA, you know, you could, but it seemed to me, it made sense to always try and follow the consequences of the most obvious idea rather than to say, well, there can be 100 different possibilities. If one is, you know, if there is no DNA in the cyto- But of course there is DNA in the cytoplasm in the mitochondria but we did, you know, but then there were little cells so the exception would prove, you know, yeah.
Can you think of another instance in history where someone would see their place in the universe instantaneously in such a dramatic way?
No. Probably the Kekule, you know, the Benzene structure. Well, you know, some, somehow you, you know, somebody, but I, you know when, you know Bohr in the simple electron orbits and so on, and then, you know agreements with spectroscopy. I don’t know the field well enough to know of, how instantaneous, but the answer had been proposed. And then, you know, we, we have complementarity, and so it wasn’t novel.
No, but the knowing how important you are now going to be in history to count so quickly and so-
And also I didn’t know how, but-
When did you know?
Well, that moment, sure. But what, because just solving the structure of DNA if nothing else happened afterwards, and seeing how genetic information is stored in a linear fashion, that was a colossal step forward. And you know, the, we could sequence DNA and go on to personal genomes. You know, we’d found the, the structure of the DNA and how it was copied we didn’t know how it functioned, and that was, you know, then we had that by ’61 in principle, we had transfer in messenger RNA, ribosomes. I wrote a paper in ’64 on the two side model of protein synthesis. Again it was a simple [unclear] that turned out, you know, to be right except there are three sides to a [unclear] that didn’t really change anything. You know I just saw it, you know, we were just very lucky that the structure hadn’t been solved by Wilkins and Franklin or by Pauling. That is, it was, turned out it was only a three horse race and the first two stumbled. They shouldn’t have, neither should have stumbled, but they stumbled. And, and part of the reason they stumbled is that only I really thought that the problem was important, you know? So it was, I wanted to win more than they did because I, I somehow thought it was a bigger prize. Rosalind had virtually never heard of DNA until Randall had told her that she should work on it. Maurice was trained in physics and was always more interested in preventing nuclear war and working for peace than on DNA and feeling there was a bigger problem. And it is. So, yeah, Francis intellectually knew it was important, but mostly wasn’t driven to it until he saw the answer. Because, you know, he saw, you know, getting the three-dimensional structure of protein as sufficient intellectual achievement, the main part of that is staying with that was fine. So I was the only person in the world who valued the problem correctly. And you could say, well, why did I? I think it was just, flowed from, you know the sort of reasoning from facts, you know, and Robert Hutchin’s exams. It started with his saying, what is the logical, most likely conclusion? If you start with it you arrive at DNA. The others you can always argue your way out of it, but it’s always harder to argue out of it than to say it’s yes.

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.

Listeners: Martin Raff Walter Gratzer

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.

 

 


Listen to Martin Raff at Web of Stories

 

 

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

Duration: 7 minutes, 19 seconds

Date story recorded: November 2008 and October 2009

Date story went live: 18 June 2010