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Down DNA Memory Lane


A visitor to your typical English pub might expect to encounter rowdy soccer fans roaring fight songs and sloshing pints of lager, but The Eagle in Cambridge isn’t quite typical. This is the bar where, 50 years ago, as James Watson claims, Francis Crick burst in declaring famously, “We have found the secret of life!”

Thanks to Watson and Crick’s regular lunch-time theorizing here on the structure of DNA, The Eagle is one of the more memorable landmarks of scientific inebriation. (For the record, Watson says he washed down his lunch there every day with only half a pint of bitter “at the most.”)

Today The Eagle — smoky and woodpaneled with dim lighting — continues to live up to its reputation as the hub of tipsy Cambridge intellectualizing. Over a supper of bangers and mash, I’m privy to a pair of molecular biologists debating the future of genomics (“It will disappear as a distinct discipline in five to 10 years,” one predicts), and other researchers bemoaning the trials and tribulations of securing a faculty position in the UK. Seated at the hard wooden slab next to me, a group of visiting European scientists complain about how difficult it is to understand a Manchester accent. Later, as I leave the pub sodden with lager and mash, two young historians carry on animatedly with their debate on how to teach undergraduates 20th century world history.

Two blocks away at the original home of the Cavendish Laboratory, times have changed more obviously. I catch a whiff as a couple of female undergrads share a joint outside the lab, and the Medical Research Council facility where the double-helix duo worked has relocated to a shiny new space on the outskirts of town. Watson and Crick’s old haunt now houses more bookish endeavors such as the Whipple Museum of the History of Science. The museum’s temporary exhibition, “Representations of the Double Helix,” displays a replica of the pair’s metal model of DNA (the original is currently on display in New York at the Science, Industry and Business Library), and tracks how the double helix has insinuated itself into modern culture.

To mark the 50 years that have passed since Watson and Crick’s discovery — dubbed “the WC structure” at the time by their more skeptical Cambridge peers — the university city will host a scientific conference on April 25 (Watson has promised to be present) and unveil a plaque at The Eagle commemorating Crick’s famous pronouncement. According to the MRC website, the city and Watson are still negotiating the exact wording on the plaque. To the homage I would add, “Cheers, mates!”



In the introduction to his sixth and latest book, DNA: The Secret of Life, James Watson claims that “life is simply a matter of chemistry,” and throughout his 400-page ramble through the history of genetics he tries valiantly to hold fast to the idea. An avowed atheist, Watson, in The Secret of Life, to be published April 7, offers leisurely commentary on topics ranging from the Mendelian origins of genetics to the birth of the biotech industry. Throughout his narrative, he stands by science as the key to human salvation.

More entertaining, perhaps, than Watson’s metaphysical orientation are the vivid details and colorful asides peppering the text. In describing the competitive atmosphere of the race to devise the correct chemical structure of the DNA molecule, Watson digresses into Linus Pauling’s childhood (he had read the Bible and Darwin’s Origin of Species by age nine), and Rosalind Franklin’s sole birthday request when she turned 29 (her own subscription to Acta Crystallographica).

Most readers are by now familiar with the competition between the duo of Watson and Francis Crick and other scientists, notably Franklin, but Watson’s telling of the tale gives a sense of the excitement of the time. “Hurriedly I took the manuscript to London to inform [Maurice] Wilkins and Franklin they were still in the game. Convinced that DNA was not a helix, Franklin had no wish even to read the article and deal with the distraction of Pauling’s helical ideas, even when I offered Crick’s arguments for helices.”

Whether this assessment of the competition is fair is another matter. In fact, at a reception held at the opening of “Genomic Issue(s): Art and Science” at the City University of New York in February, Watson said more candidly of Franklin, “She was probably smarter than me.”

Watson’s tendency to place himself in the center of the story is also evident in the lead-in to his treatment of the “nature versus nurture” argument. Recalling his childhood in the South Side of Chicago, Watson says he worried his Irish heritage would constrain his intellectual development, as the Irish were not known at the time for their mental acuity. He uses the British repression of Catholicism that followed Oliver Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland in the 17th century, and the substituting of British-sponsored Protestant schools for Irish Catholic schooling, to support his position that the Irish were not stupid, just ignorant.

“I knew only that though I myself possessed lots of Irish genes there was no evidence that I was slow-witted, so I figured that the Irish intellect, and the shortcomings for which it was known, must have been shaped by the Irish environment, not by those genes: nurture, not nature, was to blame,” he writes. “Now, knowing some Irish history, I can see that my juvenile conclusion was not far from the truth. The Irish aren’t in the least stupid, but the British tried mightily to make them so.”

But the most intriguing message in The Secret of Life revolves around Watson’s description of his own moral compass, and how he uses it to argue for and against certain applications of genetics. While denouncing the racist aims of eugenics practitioners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he advocates the use of germ-line gene therapy to breed resistance to diseases such as AIDS, and the right of a woman to end her pregnancy if the fetus is found to carry the gene for a life-ending condition that cannot currently be cured.

Although Watson does not rely on religion to help form his opinions, he writes that he nonetheless subscribes to a code found in all of us, “an innate moral intuition long ago shaped by natural selection promoting social cohesion in groups of our ancestors.” In his parting example, he suggests that the capacity to love is inscribed in our DNA, and in response to those who say that tinkering with our genes will make us less human, he writes, “If those particular genes too could be enhanced by science, to defeat petty hatreds and violence, in what sense would our humanity be diminished?”




“From Code to Commodity: Genetics and Visual Art”

February 6 - April 11

New York Academy of Sciences, Gallery of Art and Science, 2 East 63rd Street, NYC Features work by a group of 13 contemporary artists who have used genetic imagery or ideas in their art

“How Human: Life in the Post-Genome Era”

February 28 - May 25

International Center for Photography, 1133 Avenue of the Americas, NYC

Looks at the ways artists are responding to the most significant issues raised by the Human Genome Project and the research that flows from it

68th Cold Spring Harbor Symposium: The Genome of Homo Sapiens

May 27 - June 2

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Organized by Bruce Stillman and David Stewart of CSHL, Eddy Rubin of JGI, and Jane Rogers of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

Genetic Expressions: Art after DNA

June 28 - September 7

Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington

Work ranges from images of microscopic animal life dating back to 1882 to the surrealist Salvador Dali’s homage to Crick and Watson of 1962 to Suzanne Anker’s recent work Code.X




“Linking the Double Helix with Health: Genetics in Nursing Research”

April 13

Georgetown University

An afternoon scientific symposium, sponsored in part by the National Institute of Nursing Research

“From Double Helix to Human Sequence — and Beyond”

April 14-15

Natcher Conference Center, Bethesda, Md.

NHGRI, NIH, and DOE host a two-day scientific symposium describing the science and history of the Human Genome Project and the future of science and medicine

“Bringing the Genome to You”

April 15

Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History

NHGRI, NIH, and DOE host a half-day public symposium, designed to convey how genomics influences health and society

“Genetic Variation and Gene-Environment (G-E) Interaction in Human Health and Disease”

April 16


A morning scientific symposium sponsored by NIEHS

“Genes, Brain, Behavior: Before and Beyond Genomics”

April 16


All-day scientific symposium sponsored by the NIMH and NIH


“Representations of the Double Helix”

January - December

Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge

Exhibit follows the image of the double helix from its first appearances in scientific papers to its uses as a cultural icon


DNA: 50 Years of the Double Helix

April 25

Lady Mitchell Hall, Sidgwick Avenue, Cambridge

Presentations will range from the history behind the discovery of the structure of DNA to the progress made over the last 50 years by the science

Unveiling the plaque at The Eagle


The Eagle Pub, Cambridge

A new plaque will commemorate the local watering hole where Watson and Crick discussed their ideas on the structure of DNA


The Geee! in Genome Exhibition

April 25

Ottawa, Canada

A traveling, bilingual exhibition that will present Canadians with a broad spectrum of information about the field of genomics


Genentech and Tularik Symposium

October 10-11

University of California, Berkeley

Genentech and Tularik co-sponsor a one-day symposium to celebrate with Watson the 50th anniversary of the double helix and its impact on biotechnology

The Scan

Y Chromosome Study Reveals Details on Timing of Human Settlement in Americas

A Y chromosome-based analysis suggests South America may have first been settled more than 18,000 years ago, according to a new PLOS One study.

New Insights Into TP53-Driven Cancer

Researchers examine in Nature how TP53 mutations arise and spark tumor development.

Mapping Single-Cell Genomic, Transcriptomic Landscapes of Colorectal Cancer

In Genome Medicine, researchers present a map of single-cell genomic and transcriptomic landscapes of primary and metastatic colorectal cancer.

Expanded Genetic Testing Uncovers Hereditary Cancer Risk in Significant Subset of Cancer Patients

In Genome Medicine, researchers found pathogenic or likely pathogenic hereditary cancer risk variants in close to 17 percent of the 17,523 patients profiled with expanded germline genetic testing.