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Ethics and rights


Melatonin and the connection between sun and sex?
James Watson Scientist
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They sent someone to pick me up and drive me to UCLA from our hotel. And he was a chemist from - and why he was there, I don't know - but from Arizona, and his aim was to make a long- life form of melano 4 stimulating hormone [?] by - it's a small peptide derived from a much bigger - turned out to be proopiomelanocortin. So he clipped off the N-terminal end, but you could synthesize it and he had synthesized it with a number of abnormal amino acids in it so they wouldn't be proteolytically cleaved. And it showed that it was chemically - if you put it in, I think their first experiments were with animals, they had a fairly long life in this form. And chose himself to be the first person who got it - human to expose himself. And his skin didn't immediately turn dark. It was, you know, it was going to be called melanotan, where you could tan without getting, exposing your skin to the ultraviolet light which would cause skin cancer. And, but he said the effect of it was an 18 and a-half-hour erection. And so this was before Viagra had appeared, just before it had taken over the market, so you know, he was hoping of another way to be - getting rich. But you, but you know, that led me, you know, to try and learn more about it. And that's when I learned it was first made as proopiomelanocortin. So at the C-terminal was an endorphin. So when the sunlight would stimulate proopiomelanocortin and then be cleaved to give MSS, you'd have an endorphin and feel happy. So I thought that was really - explained a lot, that happiness was a reward for doing what you should do, which was going in the sun and getting vitamin D. And the fact that it led to erections could explain the long believed sort of association between sun and sex. You know, England's not sex but the Mediterranean is sex. And it could be nothing more than, you know, you don't get enough sun here. Again, you know, bacchanals in the summer and- so that then endorphins were made also when people ran long distances. You got the runner's high. And it suddenly occurred me that, oh, it was among the ways you can stimulate the synthesis of melanocortin was leptin. That had just been found. And so leptin is released by fat cells. So the - this completely explained why anorexic women had to run and were - essentially, why supermodels had to be under drugs, because the fashion dictated they were so thin that they weren't producing any leptin, they weren't making endorphins, they were miserable. And so that's why the world of supermodels is drugs. I'm sure it's the case. So I thought, you know, had an almost missionary zeal to let people know that being thin, we finally knew why being thin led to your being unhappy. And so I prepared the lecture which I gave here in London, you know, I had a picture of Kate Moss as an example of someone, you know, in the news both because of her face and because she was a, you know, she and her boyfriend - drug world. And then, you know, I'd always liked the paintings of Botero, the artist from Colombia who paints these obese people. So I put in a Botero painting of a very fat nude woman. And, but I thought it was good art, but it turned out it did sort offend people and - so I never wrote it up after the sort of, it got into the London paper- Sun and Sex, Fat and Sex, you know, that fat women are inherently more responsive in sex than thin women. And you know, whether it's right or wrong but it's one of these myths, you know. Why do - so. But now I'm going to write it up because no one has still ever written up the idea that there's - and I think it was Keats, you know, a poem that the sun makes me frisky. And so that, you know, having biology explain poetry or something like that I thought would, particularly in England, be appreciated. But afterwards, I gave the lecture in Berkley and, you know, afterwards, my host was pretty shocked that I had, you know, said that thin women can't be happy or essentially avoid ultra-thin women, you know. It was, you know, the ultra-thin, you're looking mostly if you're - So I verged into, you know, political correctness of, you know, not allowing - but to me, this connection, you know, proopiomelanocortin, endorphin associated with MSH and it was suddenly happening that you wouldn't be happy unless you were doing what your body wanted you to do. And that makes perfect evolutionary sense. You know, if you would be happy and you were ruining your body, then you certainly - it would be a death spiral for the human species. So, you know, so it was - and several of the women in Berkley even six months after or six weeks after my lecture went to a columnist in the San Francisco Chronicle and had him write a column describing my irresponsible talk. You know, I just thought, thank God I'm not on the Berkley faculty. But you know, the - so that was a - I didn't lose any sleep over their unhappiness. But I guess I thought maybe I better think about something else, but now I want to write it up as sort of a memoir and see if, you know, a magazine like Current Opinion or something like that wouldn't publish the thing. And I think I still have the PowerPoints for that. And so I have the offensive illustrations.

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: 9 minutes, 34 seconds

Date story recorded: November 2008 and October 2009

Date story went live: 18 June 2010