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Dr. Watson, I Presume?

November 15, 2011 | First Base | Normally in October, I travel with colleagues to Germany to participate in the annual Bio-IT World Europe conference (see p. 11). This year, I felt obliged to beg off. The International Congress of Human Genetics had called to ask if I’d be interested in moderating a plenary panel discussion to open the 2011 conference. The title was “Whole Genome Sequencing: To do it or not to do it?” and the guest of honor was James D. Watson, Nobel laureate. It wasn’t much of a decision. 

We last featured the doyen of DNA in this magazine in 2003, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of the double helix paper in Nature (see Genes, Girls, and Honest Jim,” Bio•IT World April 2003). Watson gave a press conference in Miami, where he reflected on that iconic achievement, even suggesting that if the BBC were ever to remake the film of that discovery, he’d like to be played by Ben Stiller (more recently, he suggested Sacha Baron Cohen). 

Now 83, Watson is the Chancellor Emeritus of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. He was also the first person sequenced using a next-generation sequencing platform, in 2007. As Jonathan Rothberg, the founder of 454 Life Sciences, the company that sequenced Watson’s DNA, remarked, “You’re the first genome for the rest of us.” 

Watson spoke candidly about his personal genome sequence. What had he learned from his sequence? Not much, it turns out. A slight adjustment to his beta blockers. From the outset, he asked not to be told about his APOE status, which could reveal an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease, and discussed the latest theory about the neighboring gene that might have a physiological role in the disease.  

Any audience with “Honest Jim” is likely to be colorful, and this was no exception. He elicited cheers when he besmirched a well-known biotech company defending a controversial gene patent, spoke movingly about his son’s diagnosis with schizophrenia, while making others uncomfortable (or worse) in talking (albeit compassionately) about “genetic losers.” Once the discussion was over, he was mobbed by photograph and autograph seekers clutching their well-worn copies of The Double Helix.  

The other panelists—Jim Lupski (Baylor), Seong-Jin Kim (CHA University, Korea), and Marjolein Kriek (Leiden, The Netherlands)—are all genome pioneers in their own right, and contributed to a fascinating discussion. 

Made in Manhattan  

We seldom, if ever, feature a non-scientist on the cover of Bio•IT World, but this issue proves a worthy exception. As revealed in her first major interview, Nancy Kelley and friends have pulled off something remarkable—the creation of the New York Genome Center (see p. 8), supported and funded by a remarkable coalition of academic institutions, corporate partners and private philanthropists.  

If this was easy, somebody would have figured out a way to pull this off a long time ago. It speaks volumes of Kelley’s administrative skills and determination that, as the founding executive director of the Center, she was able to engineer such a feat. The irony is that it took a Bostonian to bring a world-class genomics center to the heart of New York.  

The Digital World 

After nearly 10 years of printing a hard copy of Bio•IT World magazine, this issue will become something of a collector’s item. Starting in January 2012, we will publish exclusively as a digital magazine. We’ve weighed the costs of printing and mailing many thousands of issues versus our keen desire to expand the frequency and global reach of Bio•IT World.  

Earlier this year, we launched a free iPad app for Bio•IT World that not only shows off the printed content but also features video and other enhancements that will only grow in 2012. If you haven’t checked out or taken out a free subscription to our digital content, simply go to: 

This article also appeared in the November-December 2011 issue of Bio-IT World magazine. Subscribe today! 


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