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Running labs


Dangers in the lab? Recombinant DNA
James Watson Scientist
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And, but everyone else sort of felt there had to be regulations. And so the, there were sort of groups of people who went in, you know, how would you regulate tumor viruses, how would you regulate others, etc? And no formal conclusions could be reached, but at one point I spoke up in, you know, extreme frustration and said, you, when you have no quantitative estimate of the risk, you shouldn't regulate, because we can see all the good that would come from it. We would understand cancer. People are already talking about commercially useful protein products. And so that, the seminar ended with sort of further discussions are necessary before we go ahead. And to my annoyance, I found that the, you know, the people who work with bacteria for whom - at least E. coli, there's no evidence of risk. They could go ahead and have the fun of recombinant DNA, but those who want to work on cancers. So some left wing oriented bacterial people were formed out of MIT and Harvard Science for the People, which you know, were looking out for the people. And I remember, from England, Bob Williamson was there and so, I was so annoyed - you know, those – they - and he always wore black suits. And you know, communists wearing ties, and I couldn't stand him. You know, he was all for more and more regulations 'cause it would look good and we were saving the people from this harm. I was perhaps the most visible person trying to write against the folly of regulating and I wrote an article which appeared in the Washington Times showing a picture of me and Robert Redford at some benefit, in which I attacked Robert Redford for supporting the Sierra Club. And the Sierra Club had come out again recombinant DNA. So the sort of environmental groups were against DNA. We were going to pollute the earth. Sanity finally prevailed, but it was four years before we could work on cancer viruses, two years before non-cancerous things could be done. So by 1977, the recombinant DNA era, but for cancer it started in '79. Quickly, everything went very fast. It seemed inconceivable. About the net effect of the regulation, the simple.. was that you couldn't drink Coke in a laboratory when you're dealing with recombinants. So this, so you could regulate, no food consumed in laboratories. That's about it. You know, there were lots of committees. You know, Teddy Kennedy who was first at wanting to protect the environment, I think his staff quickly saw that the good guys didn't want to be tied up, so he didn't prove to be on the wrong side too long.

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: 4 minutes, 14 seconds

Date story recorded: November 2008 and October 2009

Date story went live: 18 June 2010