Dr. James Watson-Interview 3/24/1999


DNA Pioneer Dr. James D. Watson

TIME 100 Scientist & Thinker



Timehost: Welcome to the TIME room! Our guest is here and we are ready to begin. We are very honored to have with us tonight Dr. James Watson, one of the two scientists who revealed the double-helix structure of DNA to the world. Dr. Watson, along with his associate Francis Crick, was recently named by TIME as one of the 20 most influential scientists of the 20th century. Along with British scientists Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, Dr. Watson won the Nobel Prize for his discovery in 1962. He is the author of the well-known "The Double Helix," a DNA memoir of sorts, and has also served as the first director of the Human Genome Project. He now acts as president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. Welcome, Dr. Watson!

Dr. James D. Watson:: I'm very pleased to be with you.

Idee01 asks: Can you think of anything quite as exciting left to discover as "the secret to life"?

James Watson: I think we could find out how information is stored and retrieved in the brain. Our discovery was just that we found a molecule that could store information. We think in the case of the brain, it's done with interactions between cells. But we don't know how that's done. We don't know how cells can store, say, a telephone number.

Brown_and_proud15 asks: How did you first start researching DNA?

James Watson: When I went to graduate school for my PhD, my goal was to determine what the gene was. And the available evidence was that the information was stored in the molecule of DNA. And if DNA stored genetic information, then it was likely that it was the most important molecule of a cell. And I wanted to know what it was.

julia_1_2_3 asks: When you discovered DNA did you have any idea how useful it could be?

James Watson: I think we thought it was very important and that it would be regarded as one of the more important scientific disoveries. It was such a remarkably simple and elegant molecule, and its structure suggested how genetic information was copied, and it was copied in a simple way. From the start we knew that it was very, very important. It took us several years afterwards to discover just how important it was. Everyone, of course, told us that it was important. For the first time, it gave us the molecular underpinning of genetics. We began to think of the gene in terms of chemical structure.

wintermute77 asks: Were there any times that you really thought that American chemist Linus Pauling would beat you to it?

James Watson: No. We worried, but we always thought that we had a chance. When we knew that he had written a manuscript, we were apprehensive. Our mood was -- "let's see the manuscript." But when we saw Pauling's manuscript, we were relieved. It was a very implausible answer. I think when you are young you sort of have to believe that you are going to be able to conquer the reigning champion. Champions get dethroned. Now, I'm dethroned.

prisoner_6554321 asks: How much influence did Rosalind Franklin have on your discovery?

James Watson: Rosalind Franklin was a British scientist who did X-ray diffraction pictures of DNA. Well, she took this wonderful X-ray photograph of the B-form of DNA, and Maurice Wilkins showed it to me, and Franklin had given it to him because she was going to stop working on DNA and take a position in another laboratory. And the work on DNA was going to stay at King's College. Seeing that photograph is what caused me to say that Francis and I should go back to building models of DNA. We hadn't attempted to build any models for 15 months. We were afraid that Linus Pauling would go back and reformulate his original model. Anyone who saw that would tell him that his model was wrong. And he would go back and junk it and start over. So we felt a sense of urgency. If the Pauling model had been somewhat plausible, we felt that he would have gone on with it.

Timehost One questioner has asked whether it's true that Rosalind Franklin's tongue was finally loosened to talk about her pictures during a trip she took with you and Dr. Crick to a pub in Cambridge.

James Watson: No, Francis and I never had any social contact with Rosalind Franklin (editor's note: In 1953, Watson and Crick were working at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, U.K. Franklin and Maurice Wilkins worked at another institution - King's College in London.) until after we had the structure of DNA. We never had had a meal, or tea, or any contact. I think if she had had contact with Francis, Francis would have told her how to solve the problem. If she had been able to speak to Francis, and to talk to people, she would have been able to reveal the fact as well. It was a two-chain model, and the chains ran in opposite directions.

sourkimchi asks: Did you foresee the ethical debate that resulted from your work?

James Watson: Yes. But there was really only an ethical debate in two circumstances. One, when it became possible to rearrange DNA structures, so-called recombinant DNA. This was a discovery made by Herbert Boyer at the University of California and Stanley Cohen of Stanford University, a very, very important new technique that allowed you to recombine DNA molecules in test tubes. At the same time, you could put them back in cells, and give the cells new capabilities. You could give a bacteria the ability to make a human protein like insulin. When that technique came out, people said that it would lead to artificial evolution, that we would be creating dangerous new forms of life, that you could now genetically manipulate cells, put in a gene that could make a mouse bigger -- a supermouse. Some people said this was interfering with the natural order, and should not be done, and it was not done for four years. Until finally, various governments in major academic countries said we could go ahead with the experiments, because with these techniques there was certain promise and uncertain risk. But we knew that the promise was to be able to do wonderful science -- which could contribute to wonderful medicine, which could help to understand and to fight cancer. Among these scientific advances was the ability to work out the complete structure of the human gene, which is called the Human Genome Project. This ability to look at human genetic instruction, leads to the ethical dilemma -- who should look at those instructions? Should you have the right? Your doctor, your company, your insurance company, your sister, your identical twin? So when we started the Human Genome Project knowing that we could get this information, we decided to spend three percent of our money to sort of think through the ethical dilemmas which would exist if we had the ability to look at that information. Now we're spending about five percent. It's the largest amount of money a government has ever spent on ethics.

jpongsaj asks: What is your view on some of the more radical applications of genetic engineering, such as cloning, that your research has made possible?

James Watson: I would say that our research on DNA has had no impact on cloning. Cloning could have been done without knowing about the structure of DNA. It's not a moral dilemma created by DNA research, but it's created by understanding the biology of human reproduction better. Human cloning is something that really became possible as a result of techniques developed for in vitro fertilization. It didn't require all these advances in DNA -- it's something that actually could have happened a lot sooner. And it has not yet happened.

belle_2119 asks: How close to fact was the movie, "The Race for the Double Helix"? I just watched it in biology class.

James Watson: I think it was a very good movie. I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of Rosalind Frankin and Maurice Wilkins. Crick was underplayed. And I don't think I'm the person to judge anything about how I was portrayed. I think that the director, Mick Jackson, did a very good job. Neither Crick nor I had any participation in the making of the movie.

NIGHTS22 asks: Do you still keep in contact with Dr. Crick?

James Watson: Quite often.I saw Francis about a month ago in California. I travel a bit more than he does now, and I always stop by to visit him in the San Diego area. He's in wonderful shape, at 82, and he still gives university lectures.

reptarclem asks: Hello, Dr. Watson. As a microbiology major at UGA, it is an honor to be speaking with you. What are you doing research on now?

James Watson: I'm not involved in research now. I don't have a laboratory now. I don't have students. I haven't for a while. I still read a great deal, attend many meetings, and try to keep up with a limited amount of science. You can't keep up with it all. I'm talking to scientists all the time, but I'm not publishing scientific papers. I used to spend a lot of time writing textbooks, but that stopped when I started directing the Human Genome Project. I still like to write. I enjoy writing -- at least I enjoy it once it's finished. I think I can still write. It somewhat surprises me. Because when I first met Francis, I thought that no one past the age of 60 was still capable of thinking!

mirie143 asks: Do you think that DNA will help with the process of discovering a cure for AIDS?

James Watson: It already has. One of the first things we did after the AIDS virus was discovered, was to work on its genome, was to determine the sequence of it. The AIDS virus has an RNA genome, which gets changed into DNA inside an infected human cell. And we know very specifically the genetic structure of the AIDS virus. The information on the genetic structure of the virus gives you information on potential targets for drugs. If we hadn't been able to work on the level of DNA we would have much less information about HIV. And it still remains a very formidable foe. But we have greatly advanced our ability to develop drugs which stop the multiplication of the virus.

littleconversations asks: Dr. Watson, in light of the ethnic killings going on in the world, and the inhumane treatment of women in Afghanistan, how do you feel about parents using genetic engineering to help "create" an "ideal" child?

James Watson: I think in any case that genetics can be used to improve human life, I'm in favor of it. But then it's a question of who makes those decisions. I think those decisions should always be made by prospective mothers of children. And not by governments or religious bodies. Different people have very different views as to what they want from the world and I think the decision should be left to prospective mothers -- don't let the state come in.

Xoom666 asks: About the Human Gnome Project. Why did you resign?

James Watson: Oh, I didn't. I was intended to be the director for four years. There was a disagreement about how the project should proceed. The then-director of the National Institutes of Heath felt very differently than I did. And she wanted me to leave. So, I left. On the plus side, I've been able to play a great deal more tennis. And also on the plus side, it's continued very well and been led with a great deal of success by my successor Francis Collins.

JCAT86 asks: What were your grades in school, Mr. Watson?

James Watson: In graduate school, they were largely A's. When I first went to college, I got a lot of B's. Often in subjects I didn't like, like English, but often, in subjects I wanted to do better in, like physics.

Timehost: We've had a lot of questions similar to this next one...

odin_02139 asks: I am an aspiring scientist majoring in physics. I would like to know how a scientist goes about working on a big project, because most grad students are tied up doing unimportant projects for their advisor. Einstein worked in a patent office so he would have time to try for the really big things. I was curious about your opinion on the matter.

James Watson: As a graduate student, you're best if you work for a young person who's later going to be important. Because he or she will have relatively new ideas and also they are not as likely to be surrounded by as many students. And then you're likely to do something important. One of the most important things you can do in college is to learn what's important. And what still needs to be done. Hopefully, you want to be able to say that you're working on something that's important now -- not something that was important in the past. One piece of advice: Work in an area where there are not too many facts. At the beginning of a field. Avoid mature science. (Smiles.)

Dark_Alpha_27 asks: Dr. Watson, how long do you think it will be, before science can bio-engineer the perfect human being? (No illnesses, weaknesses, flaws, etc.)

James Watson: I doubt that that will ever happen. It's certainly not my objective. We would be rather bored if everyone looked like Gwyneth Paltrow. The perfect child will never exist. Aim towrd uniqueness.

benderstar asks: Dr. Watson, what do you think about the new chip technology to measure gene expression?

James Watson: It's a marvelous technique. It will allow us to use the information from the Human Genome Project. Without chip technology, we could not use all the information. It will allow us to handle it all. It's a wonderful technology.

Stamm444 asks: Dr. Watson, do you still have the opinion that a goodly number of scientists are narrow-minded, dull and stupid?

James Watson: Yes. That's just saying that scientists are like anyone else. That's why I made the remark. And of course, stupidity is a relative matter. That's what gives you hope. If everyone was good, then you would feel that you had no chance.

benderstar asks: Dr. Watson, do you think biologists will ever discover organisms on earth that have a significantly different genetic code?

James Watson: No. I think the genetic code in its broad outlines will be the same in all its forms.

psychobabe asks: How does it feel to be named one of the most influential scientists of the century?

James Watson: It was very pleasant. It was not surprising because when we made the discovery, we knew that this was one big discovery. It wasn't very difficult science, just a wonderful answer. It was the science, not what we did. We were lucky, born at the right time, at the right place. We had good educations. Crick was a wonderfully intelligent person, and I really enjoyed being with him. I would have never made that discovery without Crick. These awards mean a great deal to your relatives. My wife is pleased. I regret that my mother isn't living. The double helix is one of the great scientific discoveries. It doesn't mean that I am a great scientist.

Timehost: Thank you very much for joining us this evening, Dr. Watson, though you are a bit too modest on that last count!

James Watson: Nope!

Timehost We hope you enjoyed it as much as we did.