Dr. James Watson reflects on DNA research in the 21st century

One of the highlights of AMD’s Global Vision Conference was an interview Paul Saffo conducted with Dr. James Watson, who along with Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA more than fifty years ago.

One of the highlights of AMD’s Global Vision Conference was an interview Paul Saffo conducted with Dr. James Watson, who along with Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA more than fifty years ago. In this new century, the full fruit of the Watson-Crick discovery is being unleashed in a life sciences revolution. Watson, who at 78 serves as Chancellor of Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory, was full of vigor and humor. “At 78, I have probably lost 25 IQ points, so I sort of live off the past,” he quipped. Watson doesn’t use a computer or email, but he is well aware of how technology has impacted DNA sequencing and the practical application of his discovery.  

Watson also proclaimed that he finds it very boring to be with dumb people. “You just go where the excitement is,” he said. On the other hand, he doesn’t necessarily look down on ‘dumb’ people. It may not be their fault that they aren't clever--their genetic code may limit their capacity to dazzle Dr. Watson. 

Watson said that this century will be marked by the coming together of biology and psychology. “The biggest challenge is the human brain, which is psychology,” Watson said. “It may take us a century. We don’t know when we will know how information is stored on the brain.”

He expects over the next 10 to 15 years that we will be able to read human genetic messages. “It will be profoundly interesting to understand why people behave differently and have different capabilities,” Watson said.  “We can dissect the essence of schizophrenia, bipolarism and autism to find out how the brain doesn’t work. The essense of schizophrenia is the brain can’t function. You are seeing the essence of stupidity. The same systems tweaked slightly the other way will be the essence of intelligence. We can find out why some people can play piano better than others—just a better brain, you have to be bright to play Rachmaninoff. My goal would be in ten years everyone with a mental disease would get DNA diagnosis first.”

Watson was asked if there is a dark side to using DNA analysis to identity mental disease. Speaking from personal experience, Watson said, “We made so many mistakes in raising our child who is [mentally] compromised.”


He half-jokingly said that unsuccessful psychopaths are in prison, and the successful ones are in temporary employment agencies. “We could study metabolism and see developmental defects,” Watson said. “It’s not a choice to be a psychopath.”  He went on to say that bad luck and rolls of the genetic dice play a role in how people exist in society. “What if a person is born evil? What do you do? I don’t know. We may get to a point of realizing that some of our problems are due to our genes not working correctly, and that some people don’t fit into society the way they would like.”

Watson also said that he had given his DNA to several companies who say they plan to sequence it. “They can publish the whole thing, except any identifier of Alzheimer’s disease. Since you can’t do anything about it, I would rather have the illusion that I am not going to get it.”

He didn’t have kind words for those in power: “We are being run by rich trash without regard for the truth or reality,” he said. Like Lance Armstrong, Watson believes that more focus needs to be placed on curing cancer.  The easiest thing [in the next ten years] would be to stop cancer. We should have a real war on cancer, and we don’t have one now.” He also suggested that researchers focus more on asking why most people don’t get cancer, and finding the natural inhibitors.

Watson was asked for his opinion on the potential to delay the aging process. "It's been pretty successful through plastic surgery," he joked. On a more serious note, he added, "Unless we deal with Alzheimers, the country won't benefit from our living much longer."


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