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Message from Chancellor Emeritus Dr. James Watson

James D. Watson

Biology in the New Millennium

In 1948, when I first spent a summer at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the big question to be solved was the nature of the gene and how it functioned. At that time, many scientists believed it would take many decades to come to grips with the essence of the gene at the chemical level. But the double helix with all of its molecular splendor and simplicity suddenly emerged in the spring of 1953. The search for the molecular identity of the gene was over.

Molecular biology soon went beyond the structure of DNA to the genetic code, recombinant DNA technology, DNA sequencing, RNA splicing, oncogenes, tumor-suppressor genes, signal transduction pathways, and the molecular dissection of the cell cycle. The human genome is now complete as are those of the sea urchin, the honey bee, the mouse, the rat, the chimpanzee, the dog, and the chicken. Even earlier the complete DNA sequences of the worm Caenorhabditis elegans, the fly Drosophila melanogaster, and the plant Arabidopsis thaliana were worked out. By now establishing the DNA sequence for any organism – and the pinpointing of most of its genes and their chromosomal locations – is an achievable, predictable task limited only by the monies at our disposal.

Now we need to understand how these instruction books work. In particular, we need to find out how the just less than 25,000 known human genes are used.Though many scientists at the beginning of the 20th century saw the need for vital forces outside the laws of physics and chemistry, virtually all biologists now believe that not only development but human behavior and personality as well as, say, recognizing a familiar face can all eventually be explained in terms of molecular interactions and cell functioning.

Much, much important science remains to be done. Understanding how variations in our individual genetic instruction books make each human so unique will go on long into this new century and the ones that follow. My own DNA instructions have just been worked out and are on the Web for all to see. Soon the cost of sequencing a human genome may be no more than the purchase price of a Chevrolet. Vastly speeding up these efforts are new high-throughput, low cost ways of sequencing DNA.

Already pharmaceutical and biotech companies are using genomic knowledge in ever-expanding practical ways. Here we will continue to search for the gene changes that cause diseases like cancer, autism, schizophrenia, and bipolar disease. Our main goal, however, will long remain understanding how key organisms function when all their genes provide the right instructions.

Nothing is more important than understanding life!