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David Ewing Duncan

A View from David Ewing Duncan

James Watson's DNA Secrets Revealed ... or Not

The codiscoverer of the double helix has had his whole genome sequenced, and he realizes that he may not want to reveal all after all.

  • April 2, 2007

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

Two years ago, one of the fathers of modern genetics, the Nobel laureate James Watson, agreed to have his entire genome sequenced by the Connecticut-based 454 Life Sciences. This small company with big ideas has been at the forefront of the fabled effort known as the “$1,000 genome”–that is, a process to reduce the expense of sequencing a person’s every G, T, A, and C from hundreds of thousands of dollars to a price similar to what an MRI scan costs.

According to an article in last week’s Science,

The company has a new “resequencing” technique that uses public data as a template and relies on massive DNA replication and computerized sorting to lower costs. It would like to show off its prowess. Michael Egholm, 454’s vice president of research and development, said in a telephone interview that the company’s “fundamental vision” is to make “routine human sequencing” affordable.

Over dinner with scientific advisors, the company’s owners decided that the first person to be tested using its techniques had to be James Watson himself. He quickly agreed–and told the press.

I have spent time with Watson and wrote about it in my latest book, and I can tell you that he can be impulsive and brash. Indeed, only after he made the project public did he realize that he might not want the world to know that he could have genes associated with diseases.

Early in the project, Watson asked 454 to delete his results for the apoE gene associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Now he may have more disease variants inked out to protect his and his sons’ privacy.

I wonder if he will stop there, since in the future, geneticists will refine their knowledge of DNA and might be able to parse out genes that influence everything from, say, neural disorders to behavior quirks such as arrogance or a quick temper–both of which Watson has been accused of.

In contrast, Craig Venter, the maverick cosequencer of the human genome and another outsize personality, plans to release his entire genome without restrictions.

Oh, and lest we forget, the point of this celebrity sequencing is to highlight efforts to make this process cheap enough that we can all soon have our complete genomes spelled out. So far, this goal seems a long way off.

Yet clearly the technology is being perfected that will someday reveal the secrets hidden deep inside our own double helices. The question for us is the same as it is for Watson: what will we want to divulge, and to whom?

Note: Last week 454 Life Sciences announced that it will sell itself to Roche for about $155 million. This adds another leading-edge technology to a company that seems determined to lock up as much sequencing and diagnostic prowess as possible.

Science News report on Watson’s genome:
Marshall, Eliot, “Sequencers of a Famous Genome Confront Privacy Issues” Science 30 March 2007:Vol. 315. no. 5820, p. 1780DOI: 10.1126/science.315.5820.1780

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