The Genome of Jim

The unveiling of James Watson's complete genome came off as planned this morning. As I wrote in this week's issue of NEWSWEEK, Watson, who with Francis Crick discovered in 1953 that DNA is shaped like a double helix, volunteered to have his DNA sequenced by the biotech company 454 Life Sciences. But more than that, he agreed to have the sequence posted in a government database for all to see--making him the first person to share his personal genome with the world.

Watson was quite eloquent at the press conference announcing the genome. He has been extremely reluctant in the past to talk about the mental illness that afflicts his son Rufus, who has a form of schizophrenia. But this morning Watson talked about how if he and his wife had known about any genes related to mental illness that Rufus carries, they would have been better able to understand the travails and limitations he would encounter in his life. In my print story, I raised the concern that this kind of fatalism--if you carry a gene "for" some trait or disease you will definitely have that trait or disease and there's nothing you can do about it---is biologically misplaced. That's because geneticists are learning more and more about how simply having a gene does not mean you'll express the trait that the gene codes for. It's like having a tune on your iPod: just because you have it doesn't mean you'll play it. Similarly, just because you have a gene doesn't mean it will be expressed; some genes are silenced, others are modified by neighboring genes. If we all start believing that carrying a gene "for" cancer or heart disease or mental illness or some personality trait determines our fate, it seems to me, that's a recipe for giving up--on ourselves and our children.

It will be some time before Watson's full genome is understood, but he's already seen some things that make sense. He carries a gene that increases the risk of breast cancer in women; his sister, he said, got serious breast cancer at the age of 50. Another gene increases the risk of another cancer; Watson has has basal cell carcinoma, a (very treatable) form of skin cancer, for decades.

454 sequenced Watson's genome for just under $1 million. The company as well as outside scientists say with confidence that it will be possible to sequence a genome for $100,000 by next year, and for $10,000 five years after that. If DNA sequencing turns out to be like calculators a generation ago, the $1,000 genome isn't far off.