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December 30, 1997


The Rediff Interview/Dr James Watson

'Cloning a human is not possible now. Maybe in about 25 years...'

P Rajendran meets the scientist who co-discovered the DNA molecule.

Dr James Watson It is rare for a scientist to get such enthusiastic response:

The hall where he was giving his lecture was stuffed -- the audience filled the seats, squatted in the aisles, lined the walls and peeked over shoulders at the entrances. And when the talk was over, the crowd mobbed him for autographs while the harried organisers tried to keep them at bay.

And whatever the hosts claimed, James Watson, one of the discoverers of the DNA molecule, sometimes described hyperbolically as the string of life, looked like he was enjoying himself hugely. Sporting a wry grin, the 69-year-old scientist painstakingly scrawled 'James D Watson' on every pad and paper that was thrust before him. Not a bad response for a talk on 'Genes and Politics'.

For those who just came in, James Dewey Watson is one of the two scientists who, along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins discovered the structure of DNA -- in deference to scientists and good students we expand that to deoxyribonucleic acid. The discovery earned the trio the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine which generated another controversy. But that's another story. He was in India recently at the invitation of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, where he and Crick are fellows, and to deliver the tenth foundation day lecture at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology.

Though he had stints in Copenhagen and later at Harvard and Cold Spring Harbor -- where he is currently president -- he is best known for his work on DNA at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge.

Watson doesn't think it was his team's brilliance that got them there first. "Not that we had the right answer," he says now. "Others just made more mistakes," he says. And mixed with the modesty is a modicum of truth.

But all that the discovery meant to him at that time was that he could perhaps marry the woman he loved. But things fizzled out and "it was a long time before I found someone I liked as much," he had once admitted.

After a stint at Harvard and, later, making the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory a premier institute in tumour virology, doing pioneering work on oncogenes (cancer-causing genes), Watson took over the National Center for Human Genome Research in 1989 from where he co-ordinated the Human Genome Project, reportedly steamrolling over all opposition about the potential implications of genetic research.

Dr. James Watson With the DNA structure While some critics played on the possibility of genetic manipulation, Brave New World turned real, others pointed out that insurance companies and employees could use genetic information gathered to deny a person money or a job. And still others squirmed at the often unvoiced worry that crime and behaviour, once directly associated with genes, would lead to typecasting and victimisation. The other factor could be that people prefer the veil of secrecy to uncompromising truth, one they cannot change.

But detailed information about location, structure and action of genes could mean much, helping forestall, alleviate or maybe even stop genetic damage altogether.

To quell any doubt sparked, according to Watson, by inhuman experiments conducted by scientists during Nazi rule in Germany, he put away three per cent of the money gathered for the HGP for ethical considerations, part of which has been funnelled into drawing up of the Genetic Privacy Act. The GPA highlights the inviolability of all genetic information and proposes some stringent safeguards to protect it. For the rest, Watson allegedly relied on aggression and abrasiveness.

Asked about his famous uncompromising approach, he says, "I just do what I think is right... Some people are afraid to criticise. You have a choice, either you do what you want or..." He took on the Japanese because they were reluctant to share information collected as part of the HGP. In one interview, he had also put it down to the absence of the Judeo-Christian attribute of altruism, a belief he avoided mentioning during this trip to pagan India.

Though he admits it is natural, he isn't happy at efforts to stymie such an international effort. "Some governments want to have a first look at it," he says, wagging a philosophical head. He cites the case of Germany and some other countries.

Asked about his opinion of cloning, the current topic of popular interest, his reply is ambiguous. "Cloning a human is not possible now... Maybe in about 25 years's time we can think of it." Then he adds, "I have no problem in banning something that cannot be done now." He repeats that line as though mulling over the import of what he just said.

He'd also been heard telling other scientists that one doesn't have to think biology, just do it. Though it catches him on the wrong foot, Watson has an answer. "After recombinant DNA became easily produced, important experiments became very easy. We had to do things the hard way." The discovery of specific enzymes to splice and join specific patches of DNA was a godsend for researchers, tremendously accelerating the rate the HGP progressed.

Asked whether he met Crick nowadays, Watson said he indeed did but claims he can't remember what they talk about. Nowadays, he wants more time alone. "The question is whether you should go and work in the lab or spend time with your family."

Enough about the world and the science it is doing. Why did he think India was so backward in science?

"It's partly isolation and lack of funding," he feels. "And whether you can earn a living as a scientist... And so people go to better places they can," he says.

Finally we get to the dicey bit. Crick and Watson's first model for the DNA molecule was scratched after Rosalind Franklin -- who worked with Wilkins -- pointed out its inadequacies. Franklin also took a photograph of the B form of DNA that gave Crick and Watson important clues about the structure and composition of DNA.

Dr James Watson Watson, a vociferous critic of Franklin at one time, has either changed his views or mellowed down considerably. Ask him about her invaluable contribution, one that she did not share the Nobel Prize for, and his brilliant blue eyes, a young man's eyes in an old man's face, twinkle merrily.

He grins. "Well, she took that beautiful photograph that put us on the right track, didn't she?" he asks, before walking away. James Bond would have trouble coming up with a better exit line.

'An eccentric and aggressive worker'

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