James Dewey Watson


James Dewey Watson
(1928)



American geneticist and biophysicist who played a crucial role in the discovery of the molecular structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the substance that is the basis of heredity. For this accomplishment he was awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins.
Watson enrolled at the University of Chicago when only 15 and graduated in 1947. From his virus research at Indiana University (Ph.D., 1950), and from the experiments of microbiologist Oswald Avery, which proved that DNA affects hereditary traits, Watson became convinced that the gene could be understood only after something was known about nucleic acid molecules. He learned that scientists working in the Cavendish Laboratories at the University of Cambridge were using photographic patterns made by X rays that had been shot through protein crystals to study the structure of protein molecules.

After working at the University of Copenhagen, where he first determined to investigate DNA, he did research at the Cavendish Laboratories (1951-53). There Watson learned X-ray diffraction techniques and worked with Crick on the problem of DNA structure. In 1952 he determined the structure of the protein coat surrounding the tobacco mosaic virus but made no dramatic progress with DNA. Suddenly, in the spring of 1953, Watson saw that the essential DNA components--four organic bases--must be linked in definite pairs. This discovery was the key factor that enabled Watson and Crick to formulate a molecular model for DNA--a double helix, which can be likened to a double staircase of intertwined spirals. The DNA double helix consists of two intertwined sugar-phosphate chains, with the flat base pairs forming the steps between them. Watson and Crick's model also showed how the DNA molecule could duplicate itself. Thus it became known how genes, and eventually chromosomes, duplicate themselves. Watson and Crick published their epochal discovery in two papers in the British journal Nature in April-May 1953. Their research answered one of the fundamental questions in genetics.

Watson subsequently taught at Harvard University (1955-76), where he served as professor of biology (1961-76). He conducted research on nucleic acids' role in the synthesis of proteins. In 1965 he published Molecular Biology of the Gene, one of the most extensively used modern biology texts. He later wrote The Double Helix (1968), an informal and personal account of the DNA discovery and the roles of the people involved in it, which aroused some controversy. In 1968 Watson assumed the leadership of the Laboratory of Quantitative Biology at Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, N.Y., and made it a world centre for research in molecular biology. He concentrated its efforts on cancer research. In 1981 his The DNA Story (written with John Tooze) was published. From 1988 to 1992 at the National Institutes of Health, Watson helped direct the Human Genome Project, a project to map and decipher all the genes in the human chromosomes, but he eventually resigned because of alleged conflicts of interests involving his investments in private biotechnology companies.


 


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