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DNA: The Secret of Life
by James D. Watson

Reviewed by
Adam Marcus

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Few anniversaries have been so widely feted as the 50th birthday of James Watson and Francis Crick's 1953 paper in Nature demonstrating that the shape of DNA is a double helix. With every major media outlet in the world marking the event, a person would have to be devoid of DNA to avoid some brush with the moment.

Watson has written extensively about his role in the discovery, most notably in The Double Helix (first published in 1968). The gossipy scientific memoir offered an insider's take on the players racing to identify the molecule Crick famously described as holding "the secret of life."

Still, it's not surprising that Watson would take the opportunity to air his own thoughts on the DNA revolution in a new book—published, not coincidentally, 50 years to the month after his and Crick's Nature article appeared.

So, should one read his latest offering? Despite the clever hologram on its cover, DNA: The Secret of Life isn't all gimmickry. The book, which is dedicated to Crick, contains a useful, if sometimes jumbled, recounting of the last half-century in genetics research.

The new book makes up for Watson's failure to acknowledge the achievements of others in The Double Helix. Indeed, he and coauthor Andrew Berry give so much credit where it's deserved that one concludes the discovery was inevitable. If not Watson and Crick, then other researchers would have hit on the right model of DNA eventually.

The key to the double-helix model was the complementarity of the two strands. That insight "immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material," Watson and Crick wrote in their paper.

This structure led to mechanisms for sequencing DNA, and the middle of the book deals with the Human Genome Project, another effort in which Watson has played a central role. Here he contributed not as a theorist but as a fundraiser and cheerleader. And whoop he does.

DNA is like a fireside chat with a wise grandfather.’

"The Human Genome Project," he writes, "is much more than a vast roll call of As, Ts, Gs, and Cs: it is as precious a body of knowledge as humankind will ever acquire, with a potential to speak to our most basic philosophical questions about human nature, for purposes of good and mischief alike."

Perhaps that's true, although not all philosophers would agree. Watson commits what the great Austrian thinker Ludwig Wittgenstein considered a cardinal sin of scientists: idolization of their craft and themselves.

In fact, the promise of the Human Genome Project for treating disease and bettering life remain just that—promise. Not that these hopes won't one day be realized. But for now, one of the challenges for backers of genomics is to explain why the public should care about a field whose research has generated so few tangible results.

The book is rich with tidbits—or riddled with tangents, depending on your point of view. Some add color to the story, while others make the reading feel a bit like tracing one of Watson’s spokey models of DNA.

Watson explains, for example, how the Department of Energy came to play such an important role in the sequencing of the human genome because of its mandate to study the harmful effects of atomic energy. He also describes how Napoleon instituted a law allowing expectant mothers to shoplift (on the theory that maternal stress can damage a developing fetus).

A lengthy section deals with genetically modified crops—which are good, Watson believes—and he devotes plenty of space to the biotechnology boom. He also covers the lamentable eugenics movement, both in the United States and abroad. (One of the most prominent eugenicists during the early 1900s was Charles Davenport, whose post as director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Watson would fill decades later.)

As the country's most widely known biologist, Watson's perspective is uniquely valuable. So when he passes stern judgment on the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency for stifling innovation through timorousness, it holds weight.

His current views about biological research were shaped years ago by a largely forgotten controversy involving recombinant DNA, an experimental technique for splicing genes from one creature to another. In the early 1970s, he added his name to a letter urging researchers to impose a moratorium on their work with recombinant DNA because of uncertainties about its safety.

Watson says he almost immediately regretted signing the letter. "I now felt that it was more dangerous to defer research on the basis of unknown and unqualified dangers. There were desperately sick people out there, people with cancer or cystic fibrosis—who gave us the right to deny them perhaps their only hope?"

The situation is remarkably similar to the controversy now over stem cell research, and perhaps also cloning. Watson, who is avowedly suspicious of religion, believes it would be "a tragedy for science, and for all people who may eventually benefit from stem-cell therapy, if research is hindered by religious considerations."

He argues that a minority of religious conservatives has handcuffed progress in stem cell research, leading to "restrictive legislation in the United States that is hampering efforts to develop this potentially valuable technology."

The book preaches at times, and its explanations of the science aren’t always as clear as they could be. But at its best, DNA is like a fireside chat with a wise grandfather, a sort of "What did you do during the war?" story. And who has had a better seat for the show than James Watson?

James D. Watson and Andrew Berry. 2003. DNA: The Secret of Life. New York, N.Y.: Knopf. 464 pages.

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