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Becoming director at Cold Spring Harbor


Research on polyomavirus
James Watson Scientist
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At the time I gave my lecture, research was starting on a small DNA virus called polyoma, molecular weight only I think about 4 or 5 million. And it was nucleic acid, it couldn't be more than 2 million I think, which when injected into immunocompromised mice gave rise to a variety of tumors. And soon after, there was discovered a human virus - it was a monkey virus but it also multiplied in human cells - SV40, Simian virus 40. And so work began on both those systems. And sort of the hypothesis - and soon afterwards there was discovered in the nuclei of cells which were made cancerous by the virus there was a new antigen, it was called T-antigen or tumor antigen. And so that seemed to be a likely candidate for the protein that turned on DNA synthesis, so, well, this was - began to be studied pretty extensively by Renato Dulbecco at the Salk Institute. Renato and I had known each other since 1947 when he was a sort of senior post-doc [unclear] and Renato and I were in the same room. So we're long and good friends. And the culmination of Renato's work came in 1968-69 when the English post-doc's lab, Joseph Sambrook, did experiments which showed that the viral DNA after it got in the monkey cell became integrated into the host DNA. So it was very much like a lysogenic bacterial viruses, where the DNA instead of leading to a lydic system where the virus multiplies, becomes integrated into the bacterial DNA, and then upon certain signals which were at first obscure suddenly changed from being a [unclear] virus to suddenly leaving the chromosome and becoming a multiplying. So it seemed from Renato's work that at least my ideas that the viral DNA was carrying some information which made the cell cancer by inserting itself into the host DNA was right.

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: Walter Gratzer Martin Raff

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.



Listen to Martin Raff at Web of Stories



Duration: 3 minutes, 21 seconds

Date story recorded: November 2008 and October 2009

Date story went live: 18 June 2010