Saturday, Jun 23, 2018
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DNA decoder revels in revolution


James Watson shared a Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA.


PELLSTON, Mich. - A guy bicycles up and down the dirt roads of the University of Michigan Biological Station, urging people to move their cars. “We need to make room,” he says. “It could be chaos.”

This is usually a quiet place, filled all summer with researchers and students who stay in the cabins that line Douglas Lake.

James D. Watson is about to speak at this UM outpost a couple of miles south of the Mackinac Bridge. He's probably the nation's best-known biologist, or at least, this year - the 50th anniversary of his most important discovery - the best publicized.

Dr. Watson, Nobel laureate, just tucked into his cabin moments earlier. He is unrecognizable as visiting scientific royalty in his floppy white hat, wrinkled khakis, and pink collar peeking out of a yellow sweater. Yet 50 years ago, he launched a revolution in biology when he and British physicist Francis Crick solved the structure of DNA. The spiral staircase of genetic coding continues to remake biology. Its influence is paramount in everything from cancer research, to questions of human evolution, to ideas about personality.

Yet just seven years before Dr. Watson made the discovery in Cambridge, England, he walked these northern Michigan dirt roads as a student of birds. It was 1946 and he was about to begin his senior year at the University of Chicago.

“Here, for the first time, I had friends. I was surrounded by people I had something in common with,'' he tells the 200 people whose cars now line the roads of the Biological Station. Some are station alumni. Many others drove in from the surrounding resort towns. They are career counselors, pharmacists, retirees, nurses, a collection of the curious attracted to the station on a late summer night to hear how history was made.

Jim Watson was 18 that summer at the biological station. It was a good year: the year he grew. No longer did he feel like the 5-foot-4 pipsqueak, with a younger sister who was taller - and more popular - than he. Now at 5 feet, 10 inches, the lingering insecurity about his height was gone.

“They liked me. It was nice,” he says.

When he got home to Chicago, a couple of the girls he met wrote to him. That was nice, too.

Seven years later, he went from flirting with girls to flirting with scientific immortality.

That's when he solved the riddle of DNA.

“This was a pretty easy problem. People say, `Oh, it's only easy in retrospect.' But I was a bird watcher.”

The line gets a big laugh. Dr. Watson is a master of comic timing, when he's not mumbling. And he does mumble. Always has. When he took his first teaching position at Harvard, students remarked on it, Victor McElheny reports in his recent biography of Watson, Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution. Parts of his speech are unintelligible. People whisper, “Did you catch that?” “What did he say?” Dr. Watson is smiling from the podium. Should we laugh now? Will he feel bad if we don't?

For a man known for the occasional impolitic, and even rude, public remarks, he engenders mostly kindness from those straining to understand him. When he chuckles, they laugh.

He hasn't treated others so gingerly, he acknowledges. Time Magazine quoted him in the 1970s calling people who opposed emerging DNA technologies, “kooks ... and incompetents,” he relates.

“And they were, too,'' he says today.

He says of former National Institutes of Health director Bernadette Healy, “She had lots of power, and she didn't know anything.'' She was his boss when he served as the first director of the Human Genome Project, the effort to sequence the entire human genome completed this year.

“She taught me the curse of the Irish,'' he said. “It's not alcohol. It's not stupidity. It's ignorance.'' This he says clearly. There's an uneasy laughter in the audience. Dr. Watson left the Human Genome post in 1992, after four years, fired by Dr. Healy, a former Cleveland cardiologist who ran unsuccessfully for the Ohio U.S. Senate seat in 1994 as a Republican.

Dr. Watson accompanies his insensitive remarks with self-effacing humor.

He talks at length about why someone else should have solved the riddle of DNA.

“If we'd been chemists, we'd have probably gotten the answer within two months of my arrival” at Cambridge University, Dr. Watson says. “There was enough data in the literature. There was enough there. The real surprising thing is that Linus Pauling didn't get it.''

That's who he and Dr. Crick worried about. Dr. Pauling - who would win the Nobel Prize twice - was bringing chemistry and biology together for the first time at the California Institute of Technology.

“He had all the qualifications. To me, it's just inconceivable that he could do it wrong,'' Dr. Watson says. Yet a month before Drs. Watson and Crick found the solution, Dr. Pauling published a proposed three-stranded DNA structure that defied the laws of chemistry. It simply couldn't be right.

“It was a stupid mistake in chemistry, really stupid,'' Dr. Watson says.

Rosalind Franklin, the X-ray crystallographer working on DNA at King's College, London, should have solved the problem first, Dr. Watson says. In fact, one of the controversies of the Watson and Crick discovery was that Dr. Watson saw Dr. Franklin's DNA X-rays without her knowledge. The X-ray clearly showed the double-stranded helical pattern that DNA proved to be.

But Dr. Franklin didn't want to build models, which was how Drs. Watson and Crick resolved the structure, Dr. Watson says. And she was reluctant to commit to a helical form for the molecule.

All this irrational behavior, Dr. Watson says, is just human nature.

“Don't expect people to act by reason. Rosalind [Franklin] didn't act by reason. If she had spoken to Francis [Crick] for half a day, she would have solved it.''

“We're always so illogical.''

He was too. The Columbia University biochemist Erwin Chargaff had data that clearly suggested how the building blocks of DNA - adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine - arrange themselves. Dr. Chargaff's work showed that the amount of adenine always equaled the amount of thymine in a DNA molecule and the amount of guanine always equaled the amount of cytosine. This clearly suggested one-to-one pairings.

It should have been an important tip.

Dr. Watson admits he ignored it.

“I didn't want to use Chargaff's data because I'd met him. He was unpleasant. It was clear he didn't like us. He was very dislikable, too - so I didn't want to use his data. ... I should have been driven by Chargaff's data. I wasn't.”

By Dr. Watson's own admission, he and Dr. Crick weren't the natural candidates to solve the biggest biological puzzle of the 20th century. They weren't chemists. They didn't have a track record. Dr. Chargaff dismissed them as “scientific clowns.''

Score one for the clowns.

It was simple, really, why these two young men beat a world of scientific luminaries, Dr. Watson says. They simply wanted it more.

“We won the race,'' Dr. Watson says, “because I was the only person who thought it was a race. I wanted the answer fast.''

And he got it.

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