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Three meetings to mark my 80th birthday


Discovering DNA - who did what
James Watson Scientist
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Oh, I found the base pairs, okay, simple, but in the morning, Francis came in and realized the symmetry of the base pair implied the chain flowed in opposite directions. You know, I might have seen that if I had longer, but he instantly sensed that. And he really, that was a key fact, because the space group that the crystal DNA gave, said, had two chains running in opposite directions, which Rosalind Franklin never appreciated the significance over the space group, so she never talked to Francis Crick and told him the space group. He would have told her because the haemoglobin crystals, particular ones he was investigating had that same symmetry where they were upside down and - so he wasn't studying chains, but the space group told him there would be two chains. Rosalind never understood that.
Does that mean that you saw that it was a double helix and he - ?
No, I was trying to build a double helix held together by base pairs, and once I learned that there were - the hydrogen atoms that had had a keto structure rather than enol, which changed the location of the hydrogens, that enabled me to build the base pairs. So I had been using the wrong structure trying to make base pairs and I was told they were wrong by the chemist Jerry Donahue, who, you know, if you really looked at it, we should have put his name on our paper because without him - there were two key facts, but you know, he had not the slightest interest in DNA. So we thanked him. And the rest of his life, he seemed to be pretty bitter.
But nor did Rosalind Franklin have much interested in DNA-
I know, which was again part of the reason she didn't get the structure. And Francis, I had certainly more, because, you know, from my, you know, learning of the Avery DNA phenomena probably when I was - I could have learned it when I was a junior from lectures by Sewall Wright. You know, DNA was the molecule I wanted to find the structure of. And most people would have been encouraged to focus on proteins 'cause they were enzymes and they were much more interesting. Most biochemists weren't thinking in terms of templates, whereas we wanted something which determined the order of the sequence, which was a problem that the biochemists had never really worried about. They were, really they were more chemists worrying about how the molecule functioned, that was where the reward was, which finally meant they had to go to the three dimensional level and they made, you know, hypotheses about active sites. But it was seeing the active sites really - promoted it.

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, 42 seconds

Date story recorded: November 2008 and October 2009

Date story went live: 18 June 2010