The genetic future. Phil Whitaker on the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA
Watson and DNA: making a scientific revolution
Victor K McElheny John Wiley & Sons, 380pp, £1
On 25 April 1953, the journal Nature published James Watson and Francis Crick's landmark paper in which they described the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid. It was arguably the defining scientific discovery of the latter half of the 20th century, for which they later shared (with Maurice Wilkins) in the Nobel prize. Experiments in the 1940s had identified DNA as the repository of hereditary information in cells; Erwin Schrodinger, pre-eminent for his work on wave theory and quantum mechanics, had argued that such data would be represented at the atomic level, in a manner analogous to the dots and dashes of Morse code. His ideas had influenced several postwar biologists and physicists, Watson and Crick among them, yet science was struggling to comprehend how a molecule assembled from a mere half-dozen chemical constituents could possibly determine the development and functions of a living organism.
The mystery seemed impenetrable; it was thought that the processes of life might remain ineffable in conventional scientific terms. Watson and Crick's elegant double helix suggested, at a stroke, both how DNA encodes information, and how it is replicated from one generation to the next.
In his unauthorised biography, Watson and DNA, Victor McElheny charts Watson's role in the vertiginous expansion of the new biology over the ensuing five decades. While Crick eventually moved into neuroscience, applying his considerable analytical powers to the phenomenon of consciousness, Watson has remained at the heart of the field he helped to found. First at Harvard, then as head of the influential Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, he has developed a redoubtable reputation as a scientific impresario, continually seeking out talented young researchers and marshalling their efforts towards the solution of a succession of important molecular biological problems. When the Human Genome Project was launched in the late 1980s - its goal the transcription of the entire human genetic code - Watson was the obvious choice as inaugural director. Despite becoming mired in detail, McElheny shows how Watson's extraordinary productivity is the result of his incisive intelligence, his implacable ambition and an irascibility that at once galvanises and infuriates colleagues.
Pointing from the Grave reminds us that forensic medicine is one palpable beneficiary of the genetic revolution. Helena Greenwood was a scientist working for one of the numerous biotechnology start-ups in the Bay Area of San Francisco when she was sexually assaulted and murdered in 1984. A lack of conventional evidence left her killer free for 15 years, until the newly available tool of DNA fingerprinting - developed from techniques with which Greenwood herself had familiarity - led to his apprehension and conviction. In a book that combines the suspense of true crime with scientific history, Samantha Weinberg examines the power, potential abuses and ethical implications of a forensic technique that purports to identify individuals beyond doubt.
Other fields are similarly being transformed by gene technology. Co-authored with Andrew Berry, DNA: the secret of life is Watson's own accessible account of the advances being made into problems of disease and therapeutics, as well as the influence that genetics is having on our ideas about personality, ability, behaviour and human origin. Watson touches on concerns surrounding eugenics, determinism, "designer babies" and cloning. It is in the sphere of agriculture that gene manipulation has realised many of its practical applications to date, and here too are found the most plangent criticisms of the technology. For Watson, the consumer-led de facto ban on genetically modified foods in western Europe is nothing short of "Luddite paranoia". He is against the "irrational" and "professional alarmists" who would thwart the bright biotech future of increased yields and reduced agrochemical usage. Examined according to his terms of reference, the benefits of GM technology appear unarguable.
This must be considered in the light of trends that have accompanied the biotech boom. Science has always been highly competitive; Watson and Crick were narrow winners of a race to elucidate DNA structure, and McElheny recounts the controversy arising from their failure to acknowledge data obtained, in questionable circumstances, from Maurice Wilkins's and Rosalind Franklin's rival groups at King's College. Yet notwithstanding the egotism behind many discoveries, science has traditionally been an open process, results and methods freely shared on publication. Watson describes the advent of patenting that, since the late 1970s, has seen academic molecular biologists exploit intellectual property for huge personal gain. Key laboratory techniques and gene sequences generate staggering wealth for their owners; conversely, royalty payments and restrictive licences stifle research in the wider scientific community. Universities have been pushed into closer ties with industry, and in many cases have incorporated their own biotech companies so as to control and benefit directly from work undertaken in their laboratories. This privatisation of basic science undermines claims to objective rationality. Whether biotechnology offers the only solutions to agricultural problems, and whether they represent the safest and most desirable paths to follow, is a crucial debate. It is not likely to be much illuminated by contributions articulated in a compromised discourse.
Watson's personal integrity and altruism are beyond doubt (McElheny describes how he has openly declared his shareholdings in biotech companies), but the Faustian pact between molecular biology and big business is now a fact of life, and we are compelled to adopt a sceptical stance. The medical field provides an interesting parallel, in which research bias arising from the economic power of the pharmaceutical industry has promulgated drug-solutions for an ever-expanding range of health problems. Given that much human disease results from the interplay between genetic predisposition and environmental agency, as the role of genes is identified in more conditions, the focus on technological solutions may well intensify, at the expense of arguably more holistic strategies addressing environmental, social, nutritional and lifestyle factors. Yet certainly in Britain, ambivalence towards pharmaceutical treatments and interest in non-technological alternatives mirror the burgeoning enthusiasm for organic food production. This was itself a reaction to the scandals of pesticide-induced damage, BSE and vCJD.
Watson's dismissal of criticisms of gene technology arises in part from his experience during the first "DNA scare" in the early 1970s, an episode recounted in his and McElheny's books. Learning that colleagues planned to study cancer genes by transferring them into the DNA of bacteria commonly found in the human gut, Watson feared unpredictable public health consequences. He joined a call for a moratorium on such experiments until hazards could be properly evaluated. What began as an attempt at scientific self-regulation generated panic once in the public domain. Legislation was enacted in Europe and the US that virtually prohibited such research, laws that were revoked only after many years had shown anxieties to be overstated. Looking back, Watson regards his initial misgivings as foolish: "We erred too much on the side of caution . . . quailing before unquantified (indeed, unquantifiable) concerns about unknown and unforeseeable perils. But after a needless and costly delay, we resumed our pursuit of science's highest moral obligation: to apply what is known for the greatest possible benefit of humankind."
In many ways, his complacent view of science's "moral obligation" belongs to another era. Watson and Crick conducted their work on DNA structure at the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge where, in 1911, Ernest Rutherford had formulated his atomic theory. The discovery of the structure of DNA must be reckoned on the same seismic scale. Rutherford's work led ultimately to nuclear power and the atomic bomb; the genetic revolution is spawning fresh challenges with which we must contend. If anyone needs convincing of the potential benefits of the new biology, they need only read the books being published to mark this 50th anniversary. Yet DNA is not the "secret of life". As eminent philosophers of science such as Sir Peter Medawar have argued, whatever that is, it remains beyond the scope of science to describe. Whether and how we choose to employ the genetic tools being placed at our disposal depends on a synthesis of human perspectives - moral, ethical, spiritual, economic, environmental, political, sociological. The scientific is but one of these.
Phil Whitaker is a doctor and writer. His latest novel, The Face, is published by Atlantic Books
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