From the double helix to CRISPR: Watson updates his genetic revolution


Let’s read these letters: DNA. Who’s the first person who comes to your mind? The chances are high that you say James Watson, the politically incorrect half of the pair that in 1953 unveiled the double helix and the molecular basis of inheritance. It can be argued that this discovery opened the path leading to the invention of CRISPR sixty years later. The scientist who personifies one of the biggest turning points for human culture, now eighty-nine, has written what he thinks of the young technology for genome editing in the latest edition of “DNA. The Story of the Genetic Revolution “. The book, first published in 2003, has just been updated to cover the latest science and technology developments.

watsonWatson praises CRISPR “extraordinary therapeutic potential” and “myriad applications” focusing mainly on germ-line gene therapy, which aims to fix mutations at the embryonic stage to prevent the intergenerational transmission of genetic diseases. Are we prepared to embrace the undeniably vast potential of genetics to improve human condition, individually and collectively? Watson asks the question and provides the answer, arguing that there is no rational reason not to test germ-line gene therapy on human subjects once the technique is proven to work safely in chimps. “The idea of improving on the genes that nature has given us alarm people. When discussing our genes, we seem ready to commit what philosophers call the naturalistic fallacy, assuming that the way nature intended it is best”, he writes. “By centrally heating our homes and taking antibiotics when we have an infection, we carefully steer clear of the fallacy in our daily lives, but mentions of genetic improvement have us rushing to run the ‘nature knows best’ flag up the mast.”  There are useful characters that he believes would be worth enhancing (from resistance to HIV to fast learning abilities). Above all, there are devastating genetic disorders that could be prevented (he pays particular attention to the suffering of Tay-Sachs affected children). “Honest Jim” is the title he wanted for the book that was published as “The Double Helix”. But Watson is not just frank, he often enjoys being cheeky and he paid dearly for this temperament trait in more than one occasion. The geneticist was forced to retire as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 2007 after his unpleasant remarks on race and intelligence provoked worldwide outrage. In the latest book, he returns over and over to the issue of political correctness in science and removes a pebble in his shoe by recalling another mishap occurred shortly after the completion of the human DNA sequencing effort. His essay “Ethical Implications of the Human Genome Project” was published in the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung with a different and much more provocative title (“Ethical Implications of the Human Genome Project. Why We Should Not Leave the Future of the Human Race to God”), sparking uproar. “While I subscribe to no religion and make no secret of my secular views, I would never have framed my position as a provocation to those who do,” he says.  Hostile responses came from theologians, medical doctors, politicians (also the German president Johannes Rau spoke out). He was accused of following a Nazi logic, which is far from reality even if Watson’s way of thinking may be annoying. “Though I am sure that many German scientists agree with me, too many seem to be cowed by the political past and the religious present: except for my longtime valued friend Benno Muller-Hill, no German scientist saw reason to rise to my defense.”  Despite this bitter experience, or perhaps precisely because of it, Watson is bold when it comes to commenting on CRISPR most controversial application: editing the human germ-line. “If such work be called eugenics, then I am a eugenicist,” he states. “I only hope that the many biologists who share my opinion will stand tall in the debates to come and not be intimidated by the inevitable criticism.” Being tarred with the brush once reserved for eugenicists is painful, he admits. “But that is ultimately a small price to pay to redress genetic injustice.”



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