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The RNA Tie Club


Making plans with James Watson
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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[Q] What about your journey with Jim? Did you actually talk science? I mean, you were together a long time.

We talked… we talked a lot of science, you know. But at that stage everything was at the beginning and everything was plans, you know, and plans can be very unsatisfying. I liked the story; we once had a… a Swedish biochemist came to visit us, and I said to him, 'What do you do in Sweden?' He said, 'Ah, in summer, the girls… the most beautiful girls in the world'. So I said, 'But summer's only six weeks'. I said, 'What do you do for the other 46 weeks?' He said, 'We plan for the summer'. So plans are very unsatisfying and everything was plans, you know – we're going to do the co-linearity problem. At that stage people like Jim and to lesser extent Francis and people like Alex Rich believed that you would understand protein synthesis by doing the structure of RNA. And they had started to generate… to try and do this for RNA that had been done for DNA, and of course they were completely wrong. It never worked out that way. But that is what was believed, and that is what Jim was trying to do in Cal Tech at the time, and that is organise… organise that. I believed that what we had to go is from the genetics. To me that was the open door. You get genes, you make mutants, you study it, and as happened later, you know, genetics just turned out to be the poor man's way of doing the DNA sequence, or the man's way of doing it with… with his hands tied behind his back. As we will see from the... the plan that failed, basically, later on.

South African Sydney Brenner (1927-2019) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. His joint discovery of messenger RNA, and, in more recent years, his development of gene cloning, sequencing and manipulation techniques along with his work for the Human Genome Project have led to his standing as a pioneer in the field of genetics and molecular biology.

Listeners: Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London. His research interests are in the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. He was originally trained as a civil engineer in South Africa but changed to research in cell biology at King's College, London in 1955. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the CBE in 1990. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999. He has presented science on both radio and TV and for five years was Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science.



Listen to Lewis Wolpert at Web of Stories



Tags: Cal Tech, California Institute of Technology, James Watson, Francis Crick, Alexander Rich

Duration: 2 minutes, 6 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 24 January 2008