James D. Watson

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James Dewey Watson
James D. Watson
James D. Watson
Born April 06, 1928 (1928-04-06)
Chicago, Illinois, USA
Residence Flag of United States USA, Flag of United Kingdom UK
Nationality Flag of United States American
Field molecular biologist
Known for DNA structure, Molecular biology
Notable prizes Nobel Prize (1962)

James Dewey Watson KBE ForMemRS (born April 6, 1928) is an American molecular biologist, best known as one of the discoverers of the structure of the DNA molecule. Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine "for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material".

Early life

Born in Chicago, Illinois on April 6th, 1928, Watson has been fascinated with bird watching since he was a child due to the influence of his father, James D. Watson, a businessman. At the age of 12, he starred on the Quiz Kids, a popular radio show that challenged precocious youngsters to answer difficult questions. Thanks to the liberal policy of Robert Hutchins, he enrolled at the age of 15 at the University of Chicago. During his years as a student, he avoided chemistry classes as often as he could. After reading Erwin Schrödinger's book What Is Life? in 1946, he changed his direction from ornithology to genetics. He earned his B.Sc. in Zoology in 1947.

He was attracted to the work of Salvador Luria. Luria eventually shared a Nobel Prize for his work on the Luria-Delbrück experiment, which concerned the nature of genetic mutations. Luria was part of a distributed group of researchers who were making use of the viruses that infect bacteria in order to explore genetics. Luria and Max Delbrück were among the leaders of this new " Phage Group", an important movement of geneticists from experimental systems such as Drosophila towards microbial genetics. Early in 1948 Watson began his Ph.D. research in Luria's laboratory at Indiana University and that spring he got to meet Delbrück in Luria's apartment and again that summer during Watson's first trip to the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory (CSHL). The Phage Group was the intellectual medium within which Watson became a working scientist. Importantly, the members of the Phage Group had a sense that they were on the path to discovering the physical nature of the gene. In 1949 Watson took a course with Felix Haurowitz that included the conventional view of that time: that proteins were genes and able to replicate themselves. The other major molecular component of chromosomes, DNA, was thought by many to be a "stupid tetranucleotide", serving only a structural role to support the proteins. However, even at this early time, Watson, under the influence of the Phage Group, was aware of the work of Oswald Avery which suggested that DNA was the genetic molecule. Watson's research project involved using X-rays to inactivate bacterial viruses (" phage"). He gained his Ph.D. in Zoology at Indiana University in 1950. Watson then went to Europe for postdoctoral research, first heading to the laboratory of biochemist Herman Kalckar in Copenhagen who was interested in nucleic acids and had developed an interest in phage as an experimental system.

Watson's time in Copenhagen had one favorable consequence. He was able to do some experiments with Ole Maaloe (a member of the Phage Group) that were consistent with DNA being the genetic molecule. Watson had learned about these kinds of experiments the previous summer at Cold Spring Harbour. The experiments involved radioactive phosphate as a tracer and attempted to determine what molecular components of phage particles actually infect the target bacteria during viral infection. Watson never developed a constructive interaction with Kalckar, but he did accompany Kalckar to a meeting in Italy where Watson saw Maurice Wilkins talk about his X-ray diffraction data for DNA. Watson was now certain that DNA had a definite molecular structure that could be solved.

In 1951 the chemist Linus Pauling published his model of the protein alpha helix, a result that grew out of Pauling's relentless efforts in X-ray crystallography and molecular model building. Watson now had the desire to learn to perform X-ray diffraction experiments so that he could work to determine the structure of DNA. That summer, Luria met John Kendrew and arranged for a new postdoctoral research project for Watson in England.

The structure of DNA

James D. Watson

Discovery of the DNA Double Helix

James Watson in the lab.

Francis Crick
Rosalind Franklin
James Watson
Maurice Wilkins
Cavendish Laboratory
King's College London
Photo 51
DNA pioneers
William Astbury
Oswald Avery
Erwin Chargaff
Max Delbrück
Jerry Donohue
Raymond Gosling
Phoebus Levene
Linus Pauling
Sir John Randall
Erwin Schrödinger
Alec Stokes
Herbert Wilson

In October 1951, James Watson started at the Cavendish Laboratory, the physics department of the University of Cambridge, where he met Francis Crick. Watson and Crick started an intense intellectual collaboration that in less than a year and a half resulted in their discovery of the structure of DNA. Crick soon solved the mathematical equations that govern helical diffraction theory; Watson knew all of the key DNA results of the Phage Group.

In late 1951 Crick and Watson began a series of informal exchanges with Wilkins. In November, Watson attended a seminar by Rosalind Franklin. She spoke about the X-ray diffraction data she had collected with Raymond Gosling. The data indicated that DNA was a helix of some sort. Soon after this seminar, Watson and Crick constructed an incorrect molecular model of DNA in which the phosphate backbones were on the inside of the structure. Franklin asserted that the phosphates almost certainly were on the outside, not the inside. Watson and Crick eventually came to see that she was right and used this information in their final determination of the helical structure. Franklin's findings were given to Watson and Crick by Maurice Wilkins which was without Franklin's permission or knowledge. In 1952, the final details of the chemical structure of the DNA backbone were determined by biochemists like Alexander Todd.

During 1952, Crick and Watson had been asked not to work on making molecular models of the structure of DNA. Instead, Watson's official assignment was to perform X-ray diffraction experiments on tobacco mosaic virus. Tobacco mosaic virus was the first virus to be identified (1886) and purified (1935). Since electron microscopy revealed that virus crystals form inside infected plants, it made sense to isolate this virus for study by X-ray crystallography. Early X-ray diffraction images for tobacco mosaic virus had been collected before World War II. By 1954, Watson had deduced from his X-ray diffraction images that the tobacco mosaic virus had a helical structure. Despite his official assignment, the lure of solving the puzzle of DNA structure continued to tantalize Watson; with his friend Crick, he continued to think about how to determine the structure of DNA.

In April 1952, Watson's PhD research advisor, Luria, was to speak at a meeting in England. However, Luria was not allowed to travel due to cold war fears over his Marxist leanings. Watson used Luria's speaking slot to talk about his own work with radioactive DNA and the results of others in the Phage Group that indicated the genetic material of phages was DNA. It has been recorded that during this meeting Watson was discussing with others prior discoveries by other researchers such as the calculated width of the B-form DNA molecule as determined by X-ray diffraction studies. By 1952 estimates from X-ray data and electron microscopy agreed that the diameter of DNA was about 2 nanometers.

Watson and Crick benefitted from two travel-related strokes of luck in 1952. First, Erwin Chargaff visited England in 1952 and inspired Watson's and Crick to learn more about nucleotide biochemistry. There were four nucleobases: guanine (G), cytosine (C), adenine (A) and thymine (T). The so-called Chargaff ratios experimental results had already shown that the bases are paired in DNA, in that the amount of G is equal to C and the amount of A is equal to T. Jerry Donohue explained to Watson and Crick the correct structures of the four bases. The second travel-related event was that Linus Pauling's plans to visit England were disrupted. His planned visit was cancelled for political reasons and he never gained access to the King's College X-ray diffraction data for DNA until it was published in 1953.

In 1953, Crick and Watson were given permission by their lab director and Wilkins to try to make a structural model of DNA.

The breakthrough

Watson's key contribution was in discovering the nucleotide base pairs that are the key to the structure and function of DNA. This key discovery was made in the Pauling "tradition", by playing with molecular models.

Since he would have to wait for the Cavendish machine shop to make tin models, Watson, on February 21, 1953 made a molecule model of each using a straight edge, an exacto knife, white cardboard and paste. Chargaff had already suggested the pairing, which, in Watson's mind, were the "big" two-ring A and G technically referred to as purine structures being paired with the "small" one-ring T and C, known as pyrimidines. After building his cardboard molecule models, Watson was looking for the possibility of hydrogen bonds. The reader should note that these molecules are all flat in their ring structures. After moving the A and T molecules around on the table he sat at, he brought together the distal (relative to its five-member ring) nitrogen of the A and the correct nitrogen-based hydrogen of T. Fortunately, the A and T were lying on the table both "face up" in that they were in the orientation as they occur in DNA and Watson then noticed the possibility of the second hydrogen bond involving an oxygen atom. He quickly saw that the other pair, C's nitrogen and G's nitrogen-based hydrogen had a similar relationship and that those two molecules formed three such bonds. The reader should note from the diagrams that all five hydrogens involved have a covalent bond to a nitrogen (which has no "double" bond) and form the weaker hydrogen bond with either a nitrogen or an oxygen that each have one double valence bond to a carbon atom.

Watson then saw that the two pairs could be superimposed on each other with similar overall structure. In particular, the hexagonal rings were equidistant and the relative orientations of the five-member rings of the "big" molecules, A and G were the same. The reader should also note that the nitrogens with the "squiggly" lines are the ones that attach, as "ladder rungs", to the helical backbone and that these nitrogen atoms are equidistant and also superimpose in the two pairs, allowing the helical structure to be smooth. Watson sensed that too many pieces were falling into place for this to be anything but the answer. He was correct.

Nobel Prize

Watson and Crick proceeded to deduce the double helix structure of DNA which they submitted to the journal Nature and was subsequently published on April 25, 1953. For their efforts, Watson, Crick, and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 for their research on the structure of nucleic acids.

The Double Helix

In 1968 Watson wrote The Double Helix, one of the Modern Library's 100 best non-fiction books. The account is the sometimes painful story of not only the discovery of the structure of DNA, but the personalities, conflicts and controversy surrounding their work. It was originally to be published by Harvard University Press, but after objections from both Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, among others, Watson's home university dropped the book and it was instead published by a commercial publisher, an incident which caused some scandal. Watson's original title was to have been "Honest Jim", in part to raise the ethical questions of bypassing Franklin to gain access to her X-ray diffraction data before they were published. Watson seems to have never been particularly bothered by the way things turned out. If all that mattered was beating Pauling to the structure of DNA, then Franklin's cautious approach to analysis of the X-ray data was simply an obstacle that Watson needed to run around. Wilkins and others were there at the right time to help Watson and Crick do so. Also in 1968, Watson became the director of the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory, and in 1974 made the CSHL his permanent residence.

The Double Helix changed the way the public viewed scientists and the way they work. In the same way, Watson's first textbook, The Molecular Biology of the Gene, set a new standard for textbooks, particularly through the use of concept heads—brief declarative subheadings. Its style has been emulated by almost all succeeding textbooks. His next great success was Molecular Biology of the Cell, although here his role was more that of coordinator of an outstanding group of scientist-writers. His third textbook was Recombinant DNA, which used the ways in which genetic engineering has brought us so much new information about how organisms function. All the textbooks are still in print.

Genome Project

In 1988, Watson's achievement and success led to his appointment as the Head of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health, a position he held until 1992. Watson left the Genome Project after conflicts with the new NIH Director, Bernadine Healy. Watson was opposed to Healy's attempts to acquire patents on gene sequences, and any ownership of the "laws of nature." Two years before stepping down from the Genome Project, he had stated his opinion on this long and ongoing controversy which he saw as an illogical barrier to research; he said, "The nations of the world must see that the human genome belongs to the world's people, as opposed to its nations." He left within weeks of the 1992 announcement that the NIH would be applying for patents on brain-specific cDNAs. In 1994, Watson became president of the CSHL for ten years. Dr. Francis Collins took over the role as Director of the Human Genome Project. Currently, Watson gives public speeches and serves as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory in Cold Spring Harbour.


Allen Institute for Brain Science

Dr. Watson is now the Institute advisor for the newly-formed Allen Institute for Brain Science. The Institute, located in Seattle, Washington, was founded in 2003 by Philanthropists Paul G. Allen and Jody Allen Patton as a nonprofit corporation (501(c) (3)) and medical research organization. A multidisciplinary group of neuroscientists, molecular biologists, informaticists, engineers, mathematicians, statisticians, and computational biologists have been brought together to form the scientific core of the Allen Institute. Utilizing the mouse model system, these fields have joined together to investigate expression of 20,000 genes in the adult mouse brain and to map gene expression to a cellular level beyond neuroanatomic boundaries. The data generated from this joint effort is contained in the publicly available Allen Brain Atlas application located at www.brain-map.org. Upon completion of the Allen Brain Atlas, this consortium of scientists will pursue additional questions to further our understanding of neuronal circuitry and the neuroanatomic framework that defines the functionality of the brain.

Champalimaud Foundation

In January 2007, Dr. Watson accepted the invitation of Leonor Beleza, president of the Champalimaud Foundation, to become the head of the foundation's scientific council, an advisory organ. He will be in charge of selecting the remaining council members.


James Watson (February, 2003)
James Watson (February, 2003)

Controversy about using King's College London's results

An enduring controversy has been generated by Watson and Crick's use of DNA X-ray diffraction data collected by Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling. The controversy arose from the fact that some of Franklin's data were stolen and used by Watson and Crick, without her knowledge, by her estranged colleagues and by Max Perutz. Watson, through his connections at King's College, effectively stole Franklin's data without her knowledge or consent. In fact, when he had asked her to share her crystallographic results, she refused him outright. Her experimental results provided estimates of the water content of DNA crystals and these results were consistent with the two sugar-phosphate backbones being on the outside of the molecule. Franklin personally told Crick and Watson that the backbones had to be on the outside. Her identification of the space group for DNA crystals revealed to Crick that the two DNA strands were antiparallel. The X-ray diffraction images collected by Gosling and Franklin provided the best evidence for the helical nature of DNA. Franklin's superb experimental work thus proved crucial in Watson and Crick's discovery.

Prior to publication of the double helix structure, Watson and Crick had little interaction with Franklin. Crick and Watson felt that they had benefitted from collaborating with Wilkins. They offered him a co-authorship on the article that first described the double helix structure of DNA. Wilkins turned down the offer and was in part responsible for the terse character of the acknowledgement of experimental work done at King's College. Rather than make any of the DNA researchers at King's College co-authors on the Watson and Crick double helix article, the solution that was arrived at was to publish two additional papers from King's College along with the helix paper. Brenda Maddox suggested that because of the importance of her work to Watson and Crick's model building, Franklin should have had her name on the original Watson and Crick manuscript. Also, Franklin was not mentioned once in Watson and Crick's Nobel Prize speech.

The wording on the new DNA sculpture outside Clare College's Thirkill Court, Cambridge, England is:

On the base:

  • "These strands unravel during cell reproduction. Genes are encoded in the sequence of bases."
  • "The double helix model was supported by the work of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins."

On the helices:

  • "The structure of DNA was discovered in 1953 by Francis Crick and James Watson while Watson lived here at Clare."
  • "The molecule of DNA has two helical strands that are linked by base pairs Adenine - Thymine or Guanine - Cytosine."

Other controversies

Watson is an outspoken man, but the enduring controversy of his life is how attribution was made for Wilkins and Franklin.

Watson, who is an atheist, is known for his frank opinions on politics, religion, and the role of science in society. He has been considered to hold a number of controversial views.

Dr. Watson signing autographs after a speech at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on April 30, 2007.
Dr. Watson signing autographs after a speech at Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory on April 30, 2007.

He is, for instance, a strong proponent of genetically modified crops, holding that the benefits far outweigh any plausible environmental dangers, and that many of the arguments against genetically modified crops are unscientific or irrational. His views on these matters are covered in some depth in his book DNA: The Secret of Life (2003), particularly in chapter 6.

He has also repeatedly supported genetic screening and genetic engineering in public lectures and interviews, arguing for instance that the "really stupid" bottom 10% of people should be aborted before birth; that all girls should be genetically engineered to be pretty and has been quoted in The Sunday Telegraph as stating "that if the gene (for homosexuality) were discovered and a woman decided not to give birth to a child that may have a tendency to become homosexual, she should be able to abort the fetus." The biologist Richard Dawkins wrote a letter to The Independent claiming that Watson's position was misrepresented by The Sunday Telegraph article and that Watson also considered the possibility of having a heterosexual child to be a valid reason for abortion.

Watson doesn't think much of the ambitiousness and energy of fat people, and is quoted as saying "Whenever you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you're not going to hire them"

He has also been attacked for justifying anti-semitism, for advocating that certain racial, religious and ethnic groups' "numbers should be restricted", for claiming that blacks are genetically lazy and for advocating the infanticide of handicapped newborns .

According to James Watson at the 2003 conference: DNA: "50 years of the Double Helix" held in Cambridge (England) in 2003 : (quote) "Now perhaps it's a pretty well kept secret that one of the most uninspiring acts of Cambridge University over this past century was to turn down Francis Crick when he applied to be the Professor of Genetics, in 1958. Now there may have been a series of arguments, which lead them to reject Francis. But it really was stupid. It was really saying, don't push us to the frontier. That's what it was saying." (conference transcript)

Watson also had quite a few disagreements with Craig Venter regarding his use of EST fragments while Venter worked at NIH. Venter went on to found Celera genomics and continued his feud with Watson through the privately funded venture. Watson was even quoted as calling Venter Hitler (The Genome War, J. Shreeve)

His major contribution to molecular biology in Cambridge is well documented in The History of the University of Cambridge: Volume 4 (1870 to 1990) published by CUP in 1992.

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