James Watson's genome sequenced
Discoverer of the double helix blazes trail for personal genomics.
Nobel laureate James D. Watson peered deep into his genome yesterday. And soon, anyone else interested in his genetic makeup will be able to do the same.
Scientists in Houston presented Watson with a DVD of his genome sequence, which they said was the "first individual genome to be sequenced for less than $1 million". The carefully worded claim may be an acknowledgement that another personal genome project has already been completed: J. Craig Venter has deposited his genome sequence into the public GenBank database, he told Nature two weeks ago.
Such personal genomes are for now largely symbolic, because it's difficult to draw concrete information about a person's health from his or her genome sequence.
And genetic self-knowledge does not necessarily help a person: the only deliberate omission from Watson's sequence is that of a gene linked to Alzheimer's disease, which Watson, who is now 79, asked not to know about because it is incurable and claimed one of his grandmothers.
Scientists said yesterday that Watson's genes showed some predisposition to cancer. Watson — who, working with Francis Crick, deduced DNA's structure in 1953 — has had skin cancer, and a sister had breast cancer, he said yesterday. But it's unlikely that reading Watson's genome would have allowed doctors to predict what type of cancer he might have suffered before it was diagnosed.
That could change in the near future, when hundreds or thousands of individual genomes are sequenced and scientists learn to correlate the sequence with health outcomes.
The US National Human Genome Research Institute is planning to sequence hundreds of individual genomes, and the private Archon X Prize in Genomics has announced a $10 million cash reward for the first team to sequence 100 genomes in 10 days.
Sequencing technology is still too expensive for most people — and some geneticists are concerned that sequencing prominent scientists makes genomics look like a gimmick for the rich and powerful (see 'Celebrity genomes alarm researchers').
But the price is dropping quickly. The Human Genome Project, which was declared complete four years ago, cost $3 billion over 13 years. Sequencing Watson's genome took two months.
The Human Genome Project, which Watson helped initiate in 1988, assembled a composite 'reference' genome of DNA from many individuals, in contrast to the sequence given to Watson yesterday.
Watson's genome is expected to be described in a scientific publication soon, and was submitted to the GenBank yesterday. The project was initiated by scientists at the sequencing technology company 454 Life Sciences in Branford, Connecticut, and at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.