James Dewey Watson Biography (1928-)


James Watson is undoubtedly one of the most famous scientists of the twentieth century. He is recognized as co-discoverer of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and was co-recipient of the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for his work in genetics. He has authored several books inrecent years, including a light-hearted and informal account of his researchappropriately titled The Double Helix. This successful book created celebrity status for Dr. Watson among the general public and added to his popularity in the scientific community. James Watson is still actively participating in several projects at an age when most other people are considering retirement.

Watson was born on April 6, 1928, in Chicago, Illinois. He was an extremely intelligent child who used his photographic memory to his advantage. By age 10, he was a regular contestant on a popular radio show called "The Quiz Kids."He studied zoology at the University of Chicago when he was only 15 years old. By age 19, he was conducting postgraduate research on viruses at the University of Indiana. It was here that he earned his Ph.D. degree in 1950. He continued his virus work in Denmark for a short period of time before several scientists convinced him to concentrate on genetics and molecular biology. Thisnew direction lead him to Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University in 1951. It was here that he first met Francis Crick.

A friendship soon developed between Watson and Crick. It didn't take long before Watson's enthusiastic approach to genetic research persuaded Crick to assist him in developing a DNA model. During this time, DNA research was not a high priority for most scientists. Furthermore, Watson and Crick entered the race to find the structure of DNA rather late. Linus Pauling had already announced that he believed DNA was a single-stranded molecule and Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins had already completed several years of work in this area. Somefellow scientists thought that Watson lacked the mathematical and genetic background necessary to take on such a demanding project. With the odds stackedagainst them, Watson and Crick proceeded to develop their own unique hypothesis. They believed the DNA structure was actually made of two parallel strands. They obtained structural working models and attempted to fit the pieces together using proven chemical laws and prior studies. Many times, the model, which resembled a large tinker-toy ladder, fell apart or simply did not fit previously established evidence. Their tedious task was somewhat like trying toput together a model airplane with only a small portion of the instruction sheet and no picture of how the assembled plane should look.

Finally, two major clues fell into place. Watson and Crick knew that the amounts of the base pairs (adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine), which connect the two strands of the DNA molecule, were nearly equivalent. Crystallographic evidence supplied by Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Elsie Franklin also suggested that the sugar-phosphate component was on the outside of the model. Watson saw that the shape of the structure formed by the bonding of adenine to thymine was identical to that of the cytosine and guanine pair. These base pairs fit neatly into the overall twisted ladder, or double helix, form withoutany distortion. It also meant that each side of the ladder was complementaryto the other. This explained how DNA could be precisely copied and synthesized each time a cell divides.

The completed model consisted of a double backbone of sugar and phosphate molecules arranged in repeating units. Between these, like rungs in a ladder, were the flat pairs of bases. In 1953, when Watson was only 25 years old, he and Crick announced their discovery. Almost 10 years later, after numerous tests confirmed their results, they shared the Nobel Prize with Maurice Wilkins.Today we know that DNA is the molecule that contains the essential set of directions that each cell needs to perform vital life functions. The details ofthe DNA molecule are so precise that differences in the microstructure couldmean the difference between a man and a mouse, or between life and death.

After such an important discovery at such a young age, Watson could have chosen to take a long vacation. In reality, much has happened in his life since then. Watson has published numerous papers, written several genetics textbooks, and taught at the California Institute of Technology and Harvard University. Today, Watson is director of the prestigious Cold Spring Harbor Laboratoryin New York. This institution is involved in genetic and cancer research. From 1988-1992, he also was director of the National Center for Human Genome Research, where he helped lead the Human Genome Project. The goal of this endeavour is to eventually identify all of the 50,000 to 100,000 human genes. Watson believes that this will make it easier to screen DNA and identify individuals who are at risk of developing a variety of genetically caused diseases. Someday people with defective genes may be helped by some form of gene therapy.

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