Robert Waterston on Surprises in the HGP
  Robert Waterston     Biography    
Recorded: 01 Jun 2003

I think that the few number of genes is clearly a surprise. The amount of duplication is fascinating. Another thing that I didn’t expect was that we could basically do archeology of our genome through repeats. I mean other people knew that, I’m sure. But it’s really—its fun to see that, you know, fifteen million years ago our genome was undergoing an assault by a repetitive element. And just, you know, you can go back in evolutionary—we’re really starting to peer deeply into evolution.

Well, the estimate said then that the human genome contained, you know, sixty thousand genes or something like that. And many were even much higher than that. And we’d been doing some of the stuff that led to that evidence. We reproduced lots of ESTs1 and so I was following that. And the worm—we knew by the late nineties or mid-nineties that the worm was going to have about twenty thousand genes and the worm is clearly much simpler than human. And to have the human show up at ten thousand more genes than the worm was really stunning. The other thing that happened gradually over the whole period of my scientific career actually was this huge amount of shared genetics that fifty percent of the worm genes are shared with people, and fifty percent of human genes are shared with worm or something like that. It’s just astounding. When I started we had to prove that worm muscle had the same proteins in it as human muscle. And it just was—it was not a given something as common as that.

Robert Waterston received his bachelor's degree in engineering from Princeton University (1965) and both an M.D. and a Ph.D. in pathology from the University of Chicago (1972). After a postdoctoral fellowship at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, he joined the Washington University faculty in 1976 where he is the James S. McDonnel Professor of Genetics, head of the Department of Genetics, and director of the School of Medicine’s Genome Sequencing Center, which he founded in 1993. In early 2003 Dr Waterston took on the role of Chair of the department of Genome Sciences at the University of Washington. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, was a recipient of the International Gairdner Award, the Genetics Society of America’s Beadle Award, the Dan David Prize, and the Alfred P. Sloan Award from the GM Cancer Research Foundation.

Waterston attended the worm meetings at Cold Spring Harbor Lab and in 1989 Watson supported Waterston’s proposal to use the worm as a model organism in the Human Genome Project.