James D. Watson's ultimate DNA tale

April 27, 2003|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

DNA: The Secret of Life, by James D. Watson. Alfred A. Knopf, 446 pages. $39.95.

Fifty years ago, deoxyribonucleic acid was just one of the human body's many obscure chemicals, a substance of interest to only a tiny handful of scientists around the world. And even they weren't sure what to make of it.

Today, of course, that's all changed. DNA is a cultural and scientific superstar, its curvy profile plastered on everything from billboards to business cards. The molecule is used to solve crimes, head off disease, design hardier crops and probe the origins of our species. The complex story of DNA's journey out of scientific obscurity, and the social upheaval it has occasionally created along the way, has been the subject of numerous books and articles over the years. But now biologist James Watson, one of the scientists who brought DNA to the fore, has produced a single-volume coffee-table history that is both lavishly illustrated and engagingly told. In February 1953 Watson and his research partner Francis Crick solved the long-standing mystery of DNA's structure by determining its atoms were strung together like a winding spiral staircase, or double helix. It was a discovery with profound implications, as the pair quickly realized.

Soon after the insight, Watson recalls, he and Crick bounced into a nearby Cambridge University pub where Crick boomed: We have discovered the secret of life! While memories of what exactly was said that day differ, the Nobel Committee ultimately agreed with the spirit of Watson's portrayal, awarding the pair the prize in 1962 for their monumental discovery.

It's a story recounted in Watson's best-selling memoir, The Double Helix, and repeated here, lending the book its subtitle. But Watson spends most of his time chronicling what has happened to DNA in the years since: how the discovery of DNA's structure led to an understanding of how the molecule stores and passes on hereditary information and ultimately how it made it possible for scientists to tinker with the molecule. Much of the material in the book, written with Harvard-trained geneticist Andrew Berry, seems to have been assembled from other sources. But what elevates this history above Cliff's Notes status is Watson himself, who at 75 is widely regarded as the dean of DNA, the elder statesman of molecular biology.

Watson's understanding of the science -- he's also written some of the field's standard textbooks -- and his personal acquaintance with many of the researchers he mentions lends his account an authority that would be hard to match. His quirky sense of humor and habit of tossing in gossipy, behind-the-scenes asides don't hurt, either.

Watson also doesn't gloss over controversies that have surrounded DNA over the years, such as the development and occasionally unintended spread of genetically modified food and failures of gene therapy, which in 1999 killed a teen-age study subject. Not surprisingly, the scientist argues that setbacks like this are tragic but inevitable and shouldn't be used to shut down risky research. More knowledge, not less, is always better in the long run, Watson believes.

The book's publication is timed to coincide with both the 50th anniversary of his and Crick's discovery and a companion five-part PBS series scheduled to air this month. For anybody who has felt bewildered by DNA-related headlines and wondered how we were able to come so far so fast, this book offers the perfect way to catch up.

Michael Stroh has covered science and technology for The Sun since 1998. He began writing about the subject at Science News in 1992. He also worked at The Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times.

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