Recorded: 23 Apr 2001
Well, I was an undergraduate at Caltech; and I was a chemistry major. And I’d decided that I really wanted to be a molecular biologist-biochemist, I decided I wanted to go to a really good place, I wanted to go to the East Coast. I didn’t want to go to another institute of technology, so there was only Harvard. At that time, I decided I wanted to go to Harvard and work with Jim. I didn’t apply to any other graduate schools and I went there to visit and he was talking to Matt Meselson and Jim had a red beard at that time, I don’t know why he had a beard, it was the only time I saw him with a beard.
I had arrived in September of ’64, so it must have been in the spring of ’64. I don’t know—maybe they were having a costume party… Then I talked to him and we decided. I don’t remember going through the normal process that our students go through now, when you do rotations and stuff like that, and I just decided that I’d like to work with him and he said that would be fine. And so I came. That was how it started. I got there in the fall of ’64. In the lab at that time were Joan Steitz, and Dick Roblin, and Gary Gusin, Ray Gesteland, Mario Capecchi, Jerry Adams, and John Richardson, among others. And I started to work on a project that I had worked on at Caltech on M13—I had done my senior project with Bob Sinsheimer at Caltech. So I wanted to continue to work on M13. After a couple of months Jim said, “I think you ought to work on RNA polymerase, it’s a really interesting enzyme. John Richardson is finishing up, it’s purified; all we need to do is to determine the subunit structure.” So that’s what I decided to do, and I [have] worked on it ever since, for thirty-seven years so far.
I got along quite well with Jim, I think. He isn’t always easy to talk to, but as far as the graduate students went, I probably was most comfortable talking to him as anybody. He didn’t give one technical advice cause he didn’t have much experience, as far as I could tell, working in the lab—at least not in doing biochemistry. But what he brought to the project was great intuition for what was an important project to work on, and that was really the most important thing. What question was the most important question to ask? His intuition said we needed to understand more about RNA polymerase, because it was the central enzyme in transcription. We had no idea there might be initiation factors, and stuff like that. It was important and anything you learned about it was going to be important. So I set out to purify the enzyme and at the time I started that work, polyacrylamide gels had just been invented and so I remember being one of the first people at Harvard to run a polyacrylamide gel. As time went on we learned more and more about the enzyme and very near the end of the time found that the enzyme could be split into two parts by running it through a phospho-cellulose column: And one part had the core RNA polymerase—the alpha-two-beta-beta-prime subunits and the factor. That was a very exciting time. That was in the October of ’68. And we wrote our paper up that fall. And it was published in January of ’69 and that was the discovery of the first transcription factor, really the first positive transcription factor.
Richard Burgess is a geneticist who has been an important figure in cancer, microbial, and molecular research. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University under Jim Watson in 1969 and went on to work with Alfred Tissieres at the University of Geneva, Switzerland.
He is currently researching RNA polymerases, monoclonal antibodies (MAbs), molecular genetics, computer-based sequence and structure analysis, and biochemistry at the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Reaearch at the University of Wisconsin.