Nobel laureate: «I did sell the medal in order to help other scientists»

© RIA Novostyam Watson, the famous biologist and Nobel laureateNobel laureate: «I did sell the medal in order to help other scientists»© RIA Novosti

James Watson, discoverer of DNA, told RIA «Novosti» about why he sold his Nobel medal and shared thoughts on which way is moving the world of science and why he believes that the technologies for modifying DNA will eventually be incorporated into the human genome.

James Watson is considered one of the founders of modern biology and genetics. In 1953 he uncovered, along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins of the structure of the DNA molecule. Later he made several key discoveries in molecular biology and led the project of decoding the human genome in the early stages of his work until he was forced to leave it because of disagreement with the policy of patenting individual genes and DNA regions.

In December 2014, Watson sensationally became the first Nobel prize winner, who put his medal up for auction. American geneticist sold the medal as a protest against the criticism which is constantly heard from the Western media and academia. The medal was bought by Russian businessman Alisher Usmanov for more than four million dollars and was almost immediately returned to Watson.

This week, Watson arrived in Russia to participate in the international Congress «EMBO Conference on Redox Biology». The General partner of the Congress became the Foundation of Alisher Usmanov «the Art, science and sport». In addition to participating in the Congress, Watson will perform in Russia with three public lectures in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Today we are indeed living in a new era of biology. I was most surprised by two things, which appeared relatively recently – the study of the mysteries of the past of humans and other living beings and genetic criminal examination. In addition to this, DNA and genes began to take a very large practical role in people’s lives.

Actually, of course, I personally wasn’t expecting anything. When we made a discovery, the main problem for us was the study of how the genetic code and how it is translated into the «language» of proteins and other molecules in the cell. The answer to this question was received surprisingly quickly, in 1961, and he was presented to the public here in Moscow, Marshall Nirenberg and Heinrich Mattei, when they were told about how the «letters» of DNA control the synthesis of proteins.

In 1966, when it was deciphered all combinations of nucleotides, we have taken the first step to solving the mystery of the genome, and this step and I, and the Cry was expecting and wanted to implement. Then open two things we never expected – we found that DNA can recombine in vitro, which allowed us to begin to explore the device and operation of separate genes, and create a system of rapid and cheap DNA sequencing.

For us, these technologies have become just a miracle that we would consider impossible in the past. Even more surprised us and helped us computers – thanks to them, the cost of sequencing has dropped to a thousand dollars, and in the future it may be reduced to hundreds of dollars.

Later on it began to remember and speak only after you have decrypted the essence of the genetic code. Then found out about it approximately five thousand people, and even when I wrote his book in 1965, it bought each year, an average of 20 thousand people.

On the other hand, when I wrote the book, it was clear to me where to move these studies, and how they are linked to cancer and individual genes. It’s been 50 years since that time and, in my opinion, in the next five years we will have substances that inhibit cancer.

Even more time will be required for learning the secrets of diseases of the brain, we will understand how the brain works, only after 30 years or even a century. Only then, I think, people will start to see the benefits from those discoveries and understand them.

— You Cry a lot and for a long time studied the mysteries of how life could arise on Earth. Will we ever find out was whether the first living organisms on the planet from RNA molecules, or they can include DNA, RNA, and proteins?

— Honestly, I don’t know – this question I cannot answer. I, unfortunately, are not a chemist, «poultry house», an ornithologist by training. On the other hand, I’m sure that chemistry and scientists involved in her professional, will be able to find the answer to this question.

The problem is, I think, is that we have no overall picture of how the Earth originated and in what conditions formed life – as we say in America, you need to first get to California, and only then begin to look for gold, which, incidentally, was one of my ancestors.

— In the past, you have often criticized genomic medicine and considered it a fiction, but today it is actively discussed in Congress and in the highest political circles in all countries of the world. Has anything changed or is it just unhealthy PR?

In my opinion, all these things continue to be complete nonsense. For example, the company today touts IBM computer Watson, which «dramatically improve healthcare,» with the help of personalized genomic technologies under the guise of the name and reputation of its founder, Thomas Watson.

It seems to me that will take a very long time before such technologies will be used, and they will help only a handful of people with diabetes or other serious illnesses, and the entire population of the planet as a whole.

This issue goes far beyond science – if capitalism and greed penetrate into science or medicine, then they just die. People are no longer interested in truth and desire to dig, and they just want to get rich the fastest possible way. Today nobody is interested in creating cancer drugs that can lose effectiveness, as you can make money by selling other, less complex products.

For example, in the recent past I had a project in which we worked to create a cure for cancer. We could not create it — the drug lost effectiveness after a year, and therefore investor interest in our work disappeared. However, I am not sorry that I did this project because I was able to support colleagues.

— When you sold the medal, you become a very famous and popular in Russia in connection with those problems that you talked about, deciding on such a step. Has changed is the attitude of the Western public to you in recent years?

— My main goal in this story was possible to help science and give all the money that had or still have in my possession before I die. About other things I don’t want to talk – I just wanted to say again thank you to Mr. Usmanov for what he helped me to support those scientists whose work needed the support.

I think the main lesson of this story is that many Americans and all of America in General are now trying to solve absolutely unsolvable problems and refuse to see the differences between people.

Many of us just refuse to see that our life is far from ideal. The nature of each person cannot be changed, and, therefore, the noble promptings of my compatriots cannot be implemented. For Russia, I think, in this respect, it is important not to go the same way as America. Nobel laureate: «I did sell the medal in order to help other scientists»© Seth Shipman Biologists have turned to DNA of bacteria to «stick» and put the video

— Recently, your colleague, George Church has created a system of recording digital information in the DNA of the microbes. Is it possible to build something similar in human DNA and how to treat the public?

I hope that this will happen sooner or later. People as a species are far from perfect, and of the body can be improved. Some mistakes will be made, but humanity will try to improve ourselves as long as we remain human beings. George is an amazing person – he has a huge number of interesting and bold ideas, and I support him and admire him.

All this, of course, it will be interesting in the first place young people – I don’t think I would live to the time when the ideas of George will be implemented and will change the way America and the world in General.

I cannot predict how it will be perceived by the public as it is a matter of the distant future, 25-30 years of development. Let the predictions and their implementation is the next generation, and I am personally interested in what will happen in the next five years.


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