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James Watson: Genetics Impresario

James Watson always wanted to be a part of something big. The so-called "brat-genius" of DNA has had the knack of being in the right place at the right time, coupled with an intellect keen enough to capitalize on it. These traits allowed him to be a driving force behind the molecular biology revolution of the latter half of the 20th century.

James Watson
James Watson

Zoology before Genetics. Watson was born in Chicago on April 6, 1928 to a working class family with "no money but lots of books." He was unusually bright and was featured on the Quiz Kids radio show at the age of 12. His early interest in science was bird watching and he graduated from the University of Chicago at age 19 with a degree in Zoology.

Watson's scientific interest turned to genetics and he went to Indiana University to study bacteriophages, which are viruses that infect bacteria. In 1948, he went to his first scientific conference at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories (CSHL) on Long Island, New York. Watson enjoyed rubbing elbows with the luminaries of the time and began a lifelong relationship with CSHL.

Working with Francis Crick. Watson's ambition was to be a part of the next big discovery in science, which he believed would be the structure of DNA. After hearing Maurice Wilkins of King's College, London talk about using X-ray crystallography to photograph DNA, Watson managed to secure a place at the Cavendish laboratory at the University of Cambridge where the same technique was used. Already there was a graduate student named Francis Crick. They were an unlikely pair, but within 30 minutes of meeting they began a dialogue about the structure of DNA that would continue on and off for the next two years.

Watson was supposed to be working on virus structure, and Crick on protein structure, but DNA called. Inspired by the model making of Linus Pauling, Watson and Crick made a model of DNA structure using X-ray crystallography data from King's college and insights from other researchers. After one failed attempt, they developed the now famous model of the double helix. The double helix was not immediately embraced by the scientific community, but over time it became clear that they were right, and in 1962 they were awarded the Nobel Prize.

After the double helix. Watson spent a few more years doing bench research, but in time he found a new calling. He could spot the next hot topic in science and recognize the young scientists with the talent and drive to attack it. He used these skills to build robust research programs at Harvard University and at CSHL, where he was the director for 25 years. In 1988 he spearheaded the Human Genome Project, which eventually sequenced the entire human genome. Interestingly, he had his own genome sequenced and published on the internet. Watson continues to travel the world talking about the double helix and the genetics of disease.
This page appears in the eBook Essentials of Genetics, Unit 1.2

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