Jerry Adams on Jim Watson at Harvard
  Jerry Adams     Biography    
Recorded: 15 Jan 2003

I was there about five years. So I guess you could say a long, slow Ph.D. project. I had a very interesting project in that I had a wonderful success early on and that I had a long grind that just went on for years. So I guess I saw both sides of the scientific world. And in some ways I think that’s good. I think students should have to confront some of the difficulties of doing science so that they prepare for what is really a rather arduous career. An awful lot of things work only very slowly and there are many disappointments in science. So I think probably a Ph.D. education should have some of that in it. So I had a mixture of both. The excitement came because early on after I’d floundered on a couple of small projects.

Jim had this idea that maybe there was something special about the initial amino acid in the polypeptide. He was aware of a paper which had shown that there was an unusual distribution of amino acids in that methionine was particularly prominent followed by alanine at the amino-terminal protease. It wasn’t really quite clear why that should be the case.

And so he thought, also based on a finding in [Fred] Sanger’s lab in Cambridge that there was in fact an unusual type of methiamule transfer RNA that had been discovered in E. coli. And so his notion was that maybe this could have something to do with initialization of protein synthesis. And so basically that became my Ph.D. project. And it was very exciting indeed because we were able to show, in fact, and work that I did with Mario Cappechi, we were able to show in fact that formal methionine transfer RNA—or soluble RNA, as we called it at that time—was actually the initiator of polypeptide synthesis. So that was a big finding, especially for a young graduate student. And as happened with almost all the work that came from the Watson lab, Jim elected not to put his name on the paper. And so my first paper was Adams and Cappechi in PNAS. And that was very, very exciting to have a paper like that. And it’s a major achievement, really.

Then things didn’t go so well because Jim then suggested that maybe I should concentrate on how the formal group was actually removed from polypeptides. And seemingly quite a simple sort of thing, a simple operation. Let’s just find the enzyme that takes it off. And so then I spent the next three years or more struggling with that. And it turns out that for reasons that are a little bit obscure that deformylase is an incredibly difficult protein to handle and I think it was about twenty years before anyone did purify it. So that was reassuring to me later on when it finally was done, to find it had been so difficult.

Jerry Adams, currently Professor and Joint Head of Molecular Genetics of Cancer Division of The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, is noted for his achievements in molecular biology, immunology and the molecular genetics of cancer. After completing his BSc in Chemistry at Emory University in 1962, he completed his Ph.D. at Harvard under James Watson. During this time, Adams and Mario Capecchi discovered the initiation mechanism for polypeptides. Adams earned his degree in 1967 and went on to do post-doctoral work at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, where he met his wife, Suzanne Cory. They did further research in Geneva, and in 1972 joined The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Australia.

Adams and his research team have made many major contributions to medical science. They were the first to clone mammalian genes in Australia and discovered: (i) that antibody genes encode to recombine in a myriad of ways to fight infection; (ii) the genetic mutation that leads to Burkitt’s lymphoma and (iii) the connection between apoptosis and cancer, while studying bcl-2 gene in follicular lymphoma (with David Vaux).

Adams is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (1986), a Fellow of the Royal Society of London (1992), a Fellow of the Royal Society of Victoria (1997) and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.