Recorded: 08 Mar 2006
I think that Jim Watson’s contribution to the human genome sort of epitomized a lot of things about Jim. When Jim first started to push to do the human genome, an enormous number of people, including myself, were skeptical that this was the best way to use money. And in fact, many of us were afraid that it would take money away from all the projects the NIH normally does and weren’t sure whether or not it was really the time to do this.
But Jim succeeded not only in convincing Congress that this was important to do, but also in convincing the scientific community that it was not only important, but that it wouldn’t take money away from other projects. And he was right. He was able to get that project underway and started and of course during the development of the project, the technology got better and better and better, to the point where it could be done. And he was instrumental in having the human genome sequenced. It’s a little bit unfortunate, in my opinion, that Bernadine Healy, okay, who showed her true colors so brilliantly and quickly when she headed the American Red Cross, that she couldn’t find a way to get along with Jim over an issue that Jim was absolutely correct on, on not patenting certain things.
And so ended up just when the project was really on an obvious track to success replacing him with somebody else so that somebody else gets credit when the project is completed. It’s a little bit in my opinion, like when the Americans landed on the moon in 1969, they plant a flag: Richard Nixon, President, but we all know that was Kennedy’s baby. By the same token the human genome was Jim’s baby. If somebody else has their name associated with it when it’s finished, that’s fine for their contributions, but this would never have happened without Jim and his shepherding it through both congress and the scientific community is something that probably only Jim could have done. He has enormous managerial skills. Every institution or institute that he has been associated with has succeeded overwhelmingly. He has a way of getting people to do things and to believing in things that is really unsurpassed. He really is the father of the human genome project and I think he should get credit for that.
…. up until more recently our work had been on microbial things, but what is so what is so interesting is that we ourselves in my lab because of our interest in some of the high temperature organisms that are now called Icaya, we actually sequenced a full genome in collaboration with Mel Simon at Caltech and Carl Schteder at Regansburg, but it’s a 2.2 megabase genome and it was the thesis project of a graduate student in my lab who spearheaded it. There were only six names on the paper. And actually it was when I was at a small meeting where Jim was at, he told me, You should get her to write that thesis up, because she had been dragging her feet a a little bit, because I had predicted when I started the human genome project that the time would come when you had PhD theses on whole genomes. It’s probably the first thesis, and maybe the only one done completely in an academic lab of a genome that’s more than a megabase. And then after that some of these combines like TIGR and JGI became the place where everybody would send their DNA. So I have been involved in genomics in part because of Jim. And I should say another thing,
But another thing I can say about Jim and the interactions I’ve had with him regarding genomics is that around 1990 when it became evident that the e. Coli sequence was on the way, or in the early 1990s; it was 1990. I got together with a couple of other people and convinced Jim that we have a Banbury meeting to bring together all the different elements in e. Coli that weren’t talking to one another. The sequencers, the biologists, the geneticists, the bioinformaticists. We had a meeting that was actually somewhat contentious. But then we agreed to have a yearly series of meeting on what is now expanded out into small genomes and microbial genomes and I, since 1996, have organized that meeting every other year at Lake Arrowhead and this coming September in the year 2006 we’re going to have the fourteenth annual meeting. It’s the longest continuing genomics meeting and all of that was because Jim agreed to have this formation meeting at Banbury, and supported it and so on. That’s my interaction with him on that. So he actually has played an instrumental role in that. And that’s just another aspect of him. So he’s been very instrumental in genomics. One of the strengths of Jim is that he’s always able to recognize where the field is gonna be down the line and then move an institute or parts of the field to try to get there ahead of that. That’s what he did with the human genome. As I said, I really think he deserves a lion’s share of the credit for that.
Jeffrey H. Miller, Ph.D., is the Distinguished Professor of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics at the University of California, Los Angeles. After receiving his undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Rochester, he did graduate work in biochemistry and molecular biology at Harvard in the department that included Jim Watson and Walter Gilbert, doing his thesis work under Jonathan Beckwith at Harvard Medical School. His postdoctoral work was pursued under Benno Müller-Hill at the Institute for Genetics of the University of Cologne in Germany, followed by 11 years on the faculty at the University of Geneva's Department of Molecular Biology, which was then headed by Alfred Tissières. In 1983 he joined the faculty at UCLA, where his scientific focus has been large-scale DNA sequencing and genomic analysis, the enzymology of DNA repair, protein structure, and the role of DNA repair enzymes in human cancer. He received the 2007 Career Award for Research from the Environmental Mutagen Society.
Miller has been a frequent participant at Cold Spring Harbor Symposia, a course lecturer at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and a co-organizer of two meetings at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's Banbury Center. He has been a consultant and principal in various biotechnology companies since the 1980s. In 1994 he co-founded Diversa Corporation, which has merged to become Verenium, a publicly owned biofuel company. He is the author of several books and laboratory manuals published by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, including "Experiments in Molecular Genetics" (1972), "A Short Course in Bacterial Genetics" (1992), and "Discovering Molecular Genetics" (1996).