Dna, Five Decades On

James Watson was just 24 years old when he helped make the discovery that would earn him, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins a joint Nobel Prize in science. Exactly 50 years ago next Friday, Watson stood in his Cambridge University office marveling at the cardboard model he had just built of the molecule of heredity: the DNA double helix. Since that day, Watson has written a best-selling memoir ("The Double Helix"), built the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on New York's Long Island into a world-class research institution and served as the first director of the Human Genome Project. Watson recently reflected on his career with NEWSWEEK's Anna Kuchment. Excerpts:

KUCHMENT: What first drew you to the study of genes?

WATSON: I was reading the book "What Is Life?" by Schrodinger [as a teenager], and he said the essence of life is the information in genes. That was probably the first time I ever thought a molecule carries genetic information.

What do you think accounts for the fact that you and your collaborators were the first to solve the structure of DNA?

Probably because I was more obsessed about DNA than anyone else. If you saw the BBC docudrama ["Life Story"], I come across as somewhat unpleasant, because all I wanted to talk about was DNA.

And were you unpleasant back then?

I probably was, yes.

Would you say that it was your proudest moment?

I can't remember. If I said it was my happiest moment, people would say, "Well, where does your wife fit in?"

You could say I got just as much pleasure when "The Double Helix" came out and there were some very good reviews. That was a more unique achievement, because no one else could have written it--anyone else would have written a different book.

And yet it was very controversial. Francis Crick called it "a violation of friendship."

I thought the book would annoy him, but I didn't think it would hurt him. And he admitted it later. He said, "I got invited out to dinner more." It made him out to be an interesting person.

What is your relationship with Crick today?

I go to California a couple times a year, so I always see him and we talk. We're natural scientific friends, [but] we wouldn't be natural social friends. He's not interested in politics, so you can't talk to him about Iraq. But he's a more serious scientist than I am.

How do you mean?

I spend a lot of my time now in the organization of science, letting other people do science. Francis has been doing the science himself.

Why did you make the decision to leave bench science for organizational work?

Because if you don't have the organization, you can't do the science. You need an institution like [Cold Spring Harbor] to work on cancer. If I had stayed at Harvard, we may never have developed something like this. And then I became interested in the genome, I thought the genome was the answer. And [the Human Genome Project] was something where, unless you were worried about getting it started, it might not be done. I have no desire to have power or to manipulate other people's minds, but sometimes it's better that you're boss.

Cancer has been one of your main interests for decades. How close are we to a cure?

A decade. Most people would say that's much too optimistic. If I owned a big drug company, I'd give myself two years, with a good cash flow. At least we'd be testing in two years. We might be wrong, but it would be worth testing.

You also led the effort to decipher the human genome. Do you have any reservations about that type of knowledge? Could it lead to a genetic caste system?

We have a caste system now of intelligence. We say we're all equal, but we're not. We have great differences in our potential. Those who have been victims of bad throws of the genetic dice haven't had the same opportunities as those who are bright. And I worry about those with bad futures.

Are you for genetic manipulation in humans?

Eventually. We can already make plants resistant to viruses, and we could do the same thing in humans. I don't see anything wrong with it. I mean, we've tried to enhance everything else in our lives.

When you solved the structure of DNA, did you ever imagine that we'd now be on the brink of curing genetic disease?

No. My time frame was six months ahead, not much more. Actually, it was more like the next weekend. The only people who think that far ahead are science-fiction writers. But I don't read science fiction. I'm only interested in what exists.