‘A Passion for DNA: Genes, Genomes, and Society’

“No one then had any compelling reason to take my hypothesis seriously, but by November 1952 I liked it well enough to print DNA ® RNA ® protein on a small piece of paper that I taped on the wall above my writing table in my rooms at Clare College.

From the day of our first meeting, Francis Crick and I thought it highly likely that the genetic information of DNA is conveyed by the sequence of its four bases. But we knew it was premature to promote this idea before the structure of DNA was known. However, the moment we first saw how to build a double helix out of the four base pairs, it was clear that the essential uniqueness of a gene must reside in its respective sequence of four bases.”

So wrote James D. Watson in his book, A Passion for DNA: Genes, Genomes, and Society. In this work, told with refreshing honesty, is the human story of how Watson and Francis Crick won a Nobel Prize for what may be the most important advance in the life sciences since Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species.
In this collection of essays (written for a variety of occasions during the past three decades), Watson discusses the science and sociology of several issues – foremost are recombinant DNA, the nature of cancer research, the past, present, and future of DNA the Human Genome Project and its bioethical problems.
The book starts with an autobiographical discussion of the events in Watson’s life that preceded his discovery of the double helix. He then describes his scientific mentors, collaborators and rivals, as well as his philosophy on science. (Watson’s advice for budding scientists: learn from the winners, take risks, have a fallback, have fun and stay connected.)
In 1953, two young, unknown scientists sparked a worldwide revolution. Studying DNA for clues to the nature of genes, James Watson and Francis Crick deduced its molecular composition – two chains twisted into a double helix – and immediately realized that the structure implied how genes were copied and passed from one generation to the next.
Their observation has had extraordinary consequences: the discovery of a genetic code that all living things share and the realization that the code translates into proteins; the ability to alter an organism’s genetic make-up; recognition that diseases like cancer begin when genes go wrong; the foundations of a biotechnology industry and the means of cloning plants and animals; a start on cataloguing human genes; and the glimmer of a new kind of medicine that uses DNA therapeutically.
As public concern about genetically modified food mounts, here is Watson’s salutary reminder, from a previous era of DNA anxiety, that restrictions on potentially rewarding research are justifiable only if there is robust evidence of likely harm.
Commenting on the 1970s War on Cancer, he warns that effective leadership of publicly funded research initiatives, such as the current search for an AIDS vaccine, demands the courage to support promising but risky new ideas and prune away anything less than the best. And as the first Director of the Human Genome Project, now approaching its climax, he acknowledges the past evils of eugenics but argues fiercely for the need to balance potential misuses of genetic data with the overwhelming benefits of a rational attack on the roots of disease.
In an essay on cancer research and the “war on cancer,” Watson tells us that to win wars one must know the enemy and the location of the battlefield. When Richard Nixon declared a war on cancer, this information was not yet available. The discovery and elucidation of the action of oncogenes and of cancer viruses were pivotal for understanding the terrain, planning the strategy, and pursuing the war. Watson provides numerous examples to stress the necessity of research in the basic sciences for developing successful therapies against cancer.

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