August 3, 2011

DNA pioneer James Watson addresses overflow crowd at UW Health Sciences

UW Health Sciences/UW Medicine

James D. Watson, a pioneer in DNA research, addressed an overflow crowd in Hogness Auditorium at the UW Health Sciences Center July 27.

Watch the video of the talk.

He was the speaker for the Third Annual Arno and Gretel Motulsky Lecture in Medical Genetics, sponsored by the Division of Medical Genetics in the Department of Medicine. The lecture honors Motulsky, who has made many important contributions to understanding the genetics of lipid disorders, and his late wife Gretel Motulsky, a fellow refugee from the Holocaust.

Dr. James D. Watson speaking at the UW.

Leila Gray

Dr. James D. Watson speaking at the UW.

In 1953, while at Cambridge University, 25-year-old Watson and his older colleague, Francis Crick. proposed the double helix structure of DNA, and the pairing of nucleotides along the rungs. The twisted-ladder molecule is the blueprint for forming and sustaining life.  A self-reproducing machine, DNA passes these instructions to successive generations.

“It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediate suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material,” Watson and Crick wrote in reporting their findings in Nature.

Watson and Crick, along with Maurice Wilkins, received the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structures of the nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.”

UW medical genetics pioneer Dr. Arno Motulsky (left) and Dr. James Watson (center).

Leila Gray

UW medical genetics pioneer Dr. Arno Motulsky (left) and Dr. James Watson (center).

Throughout his career Watson has been fascinated by the molecular mechanisms by which genes are inherited and how genetic information is read within the living cell. Watson is now 83, and retired from scientific administration, but not from his involvement in science. He traced his early work, and other discoveries in genetics, such as the mechanisms of transfer and messenger RNA, that entranced him.

James Watson signs a bobble-head doll for a student.

Leila Gray

James Watson signs a bobble-head doll for a student.

Expanding from neurogenetics, Watson also mentioned his interest in the latest work in neuroscience seeking the biological mechanisms behind feelings of happiness and frustration.

He also talked about the importance of work by scientists who are seeking to unravel the complex genetic mechanism underlying psychiatric and neurological disorders like schizophrenia. Because his son is affected by this condition, Watson has a deeply personal desire to have scientific answers about the underlying mechanisms of mental illness.

At the end of his talk, Watson was surrounded by students who wanted to be photographed with him. He patiently signed autographs, and was amused by a student who presented a bobble-head Watson doll for his signature. He encouraged the students, as they train in the discipline of science, not to lose sight of their good ideas that initially may seem improbable.