Robert Waterston on Mechanics of the HGP
  Robert Waterston     Biography    
Recorded: 01 Jun 2003

Well, the mechanics—I mean, you know, I mean the simplest thing numerically—I mean we loaded—we had an ABI DNA sequencer at the start of the worm project. And we felt good when we got twenty four lanes of sequence a day that we, you know, we actually had loaded the machine and gotten it successful. And people don’t realize how bad that data was and how hard we had to work to get it to work. I mean we had to grow very substantial amounts of M13, purify it to get it right, clean and then we had to load the right amount of DNA on otherwise it didn’t work. And the dyes were poor and the signal was noisy. And we had to put it together by hand. I mean there was this Staden package2 but with anything that was complex it didn’t work very well.

It was very slow, it was very slow. And that was even with non-radioactive sequencing. I mean I started out radioactive sequencing. And Maxim-Gilbert I remember the first gene I sequenced in a worm was a tRNA. We did it with Maxim-Gilbert sequencing. We got two hundred bases of sequencing. I broke down the sequence beside the gel and I was next door to Maynard Olson and we—this is a common project—and I went down to the—we all went down to the seminar room and I wrote all the stuff on the board. I mean there’s no computer involved in this at all. We had to-by looking-figure out that there was a tRNA gene in this structure. I can’t imagine, you know, even to think of doing it that way is just astounding. So the year for that was probably ’82 [or] ’83. I mean the [non-radioactive] part about twenty-four lanes a day that was 1990. But the Maxim-Gilbert sequencing with the tRNA and writing it on the blackboard that was probably ’83.

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.