Tom Maniatis on Recombinant DNA Controversy at Harvard
  Tom Maniatis     Biography    
Recorded: 22 Mar 2003

What had happened is that I was working on gene regulation in bacteriophage Lambda. I knew that it would not be good for me to continue working on that since I didn’t want to compete with my mentor. And at the time I was very excited about recombinant DNA and being able to study gene regulation of higher cells. And so I met a person who at the time was a student in Fotis Kafatos’s lab. His name was Argiris Efstratiadis. And he was trying to make full-length copies of cDNA. And so we got together because I had worked out techniques to very accurately determine the size of DNA by gel electrophoresis. And we collaborated and that opened a whole area of cDNA cloning, the ability to isolate genes from higher cells.

And so it was in that context that I began my assistant professorship at Harvard and shortly after that was what started—the whole controversy in Cambridge on recombinant DNA started. In fact, the controversy was over the lab that they were building for me to do recombinant DNA research. And so it got worse and worse here. There were open meetings and great concern about doing this work here. And Jim [Watson], who I actually didn’t know very well, I’d seen him—he was, when I came as a postdoc, he was going back and forth between here and Cold Spring Harbor. He hadn’t officially resigned yet. And I saw him in passing. I really didn’t know him at all. And I attended group meetings, the Watson-Gilbert-Weber group meetings.

And when it looked like we were not going to be able to do this research here, I got a phone call from Jim. And Jim said, “You know, it look’s like things are pretty bad there. Would you like to come to Cold Spring Harbor and continue in your work?” And, of course, that was wonderful for me because I was in a really bad situation. I mean I was a beginning assistant professor and I had mapped out the direction that I wanted to go in and I wasn’t able to do it.

Tom Maniatis, molecular biologist, is a leader in the field of recombinant DNA. At Vanderbilt University he completed his Ph.D. studying DNA wide-angle scattering. He became a postdoctoral fellow and professor at Harvard University and met Jim Watson just before he became director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

While Maniatis was beginning experimentation with cDNA cloning and gene regulation of higher cells, the controversy over recombinant DNA in Cambridge stunted his progression. Watson offered Maniatis a position at CSHL where he could work more efficiently to understand the methods of recombinant DNA. At CSHL, Maniatis completed full-length synthesis of double stranded DNA and actual cloning of cDNA.

He is currently a professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard University studying the mechanisms involved in the regulation of RNA transciption and pre-messenger RNA splicing. He studies transcription to understand how eukaryotic genes are activated by viral infection and extracellular signals.