A Passion for DNA: Genes, Genomes, and Society

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Oxford University Press, 2001 - Science - 250 pages
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In 1953, two young, unknown scientists sparked a worldwide revolution. Studying DNA for clues to the nature of genes, James Watson and Francis Crick deduced its molecular composition - two chains twisted into a double helix - and immediately realized that the structure implied how genes were copied and passed from one generation to the next. Their observation has had extraordinary consequences: the discovery of a genetic code that all living things share and the realization that the code translates into proteins; the ability to alter an organism's genetic make-up; recognition that diseases like cancer begin when genes go wrong; the foundations of a biotechnology industry and the means of cloning plants and animals; a start on cataloguing human genes; and the glimmer of a new kind of medicine that uses DNA therapeutically. In the midst of the ferment, its instigator Jim Watson has been tireless. A principal architect and visionary of the new biology, a Nobel Prize-winner at34 and best-selling author at 40 (The Double Helix), he had the authority, flair, and courage to take an early and prominent role as commentator on the march of DNA science and its implications for society. In essays for publications large and small, and in lectures around the world, he delivered what were, in effect, dispatches from the front lines of the revolution. Outspoken and sparkling with ideas and opinions, a selection of them is collected for the first time in this volume. Their resonance with today's headlines is striking. As public concern about genetically modified food mounts, here is Watson's salutory reminder, from a previous era of DNA anxiety, that restrictions on potentially rewarding research are justifiable only if there is robust evidence of likely harm. Commenting on the 1970s War on Cancer, he warns that effective leadership of publicly funded research initiatives, such as the current search for an AIDS vaccine, demands the courage to support promising butrisky new ideas and prune away anything less than the best. And as the first Director of the Human Genome Project, now approaching its climax, he acknowledges the past evils of eugenics but argues fiercely for the need to balance potential misuses of genetic data with the overwhelming benefits of a rational attack on the roots of disease. These combative pieces mingle with charming memoirs of distinguished former colleagues, advice for young scientist, and a pointed account of Germany's troubled historical relationship with genetics. They open with Watson's reflections on the family influence and values of his Chicago upbringing that helped shape his career.. This collection of provocative, optimistic, and entertaining essays begins and ends with elegant commentaries from the distinguished molecular biologist and writer Walter Gratzer. They illuminate a volume that portrays the life and work of a scientist, educator, and author who is acknowledged as an intellectual leader of thetwentieth century.

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A creative collection of articles from Jim. Read full review

Selected pages


Values from a Chicago Upbringing
Growing Up in the Phage Group
Minds That Live for Science
Early Speculations and Facts about RNA Templates
Braggs Foreword to The Double Helix
Luria Hershey and Pauling
In Further Defense of DNA
Standing Up for Recombinant DNA
Some Rules of Thumb
The Academic Community and Cancer Research
Maintaining HighQuality Cancer Research in a ZeroSum Era
The Science for Beating Down Cancer
Moving on to Human DNA
Ethical Implications of the Human Genome Project
Genes and Politics
Five Days in Berlin

The Nobelist Versus the Film Star
The DNA Biohazard Canard
Is This What We Want?
The Dissemination of Unpublished Information
Science and the American Scene
The Necessity for Some Academic Aloofness
Striving for Excellence
What Is the Right Way to Fight the Tragedy of Genetic Disease?
All for the GoodWhy Genetic Engineering Must Soldier On
EnvoiDNA Peace and Laughter
Name Index
Subject Index

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About the author (2001)

James D. Watson was Director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York, from 1968 to 1993 and is now its President. He was the first Director of the National Center for Humane Genome Research of the National Institutes of Health from 1989 to 1992. With Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, he received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. He is the author of the best-selling memoir The Double Helix and the groundbreaking textbook The Molecular Biology of the Gene, and is co-author of Molecular Biology of the Cell and Recombinant DNA: A Short Course. Among many other awards and honors, Dr Watson is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Science.

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