Mario Capecchi on Jim Watson’s Harvard Laboratory: Atmosphere
  Mario Capecchi     Biography    
Recorded: 27 Feb 2003

It was extremely exciting. I mean it was—we felt like you could approach any problem in biology. And what Jim was very good at is what—indeed we could go after any biology system that we thought about, but there were certain systems that were more approachable than others. And it was clear that initially you had to work with fairly simple systems. So we started out with viruses and also with bacteria. And as the technology improved then we could start to approach more and more complex system working all the way through mammals.

But at that time most of—and we also felt that in essence anything we learned in bacteria was likely to be also true in much more complex organisms. That is the same rules; the same machinery was going to be involved in all of these systems. And so might as well track a simple system as opposed to a complex system.

And I think what Jim brought to the lab was, you know, excitement. He traveled all over the country. He knew what everybody was doing. [He] could tell us, you know, on almost a weekly basis what other people were up to who are our real competitors. Who are our imaginary competitors? He often set up things in such a way that you always felt you were competing. I mean you always were in a race. But I think often that was simply of making sure that you worked your butt off and really pursued the problem with all the intensity possible.

But on the other hand, you know, it made for enormous excitement. And we knew essentially what was going on in England; We knew what was going on in France. So it was a fairly small community but spread out all over the world. And we felt that we were, you know, among those that were really making true contributions.

Mario R. Capecchi, Ph.D., is a scientist and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the Eccles Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Utah Health Sciences Center and a founding member of the Brain Institute at the University of Utah. He also serves as the Distinguished Professor and Co-Chairman of Human Genetics and Biology at the University of Utah, where he joined the faculty in 1973.

In 2007 Mario Capecchi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine with Oliver Smithies and Martin Evans for their research on gene targeting techniques, specifically working with mice embryo-derived stem cells. In the 1980s Capecchi pioneered a technology known as "knockout mice" which revolutionized genetic and biomedical research. This technology allows scientists to replace or disrupt specific genes in mice to understand how a similar gene disruption in humans may cause or contribute to diseases.

Capecchi, abandoned and homeless as a 4-year old child in Italy during World War II, was reunited with his mother and immigrated to the United States in 1946. After receiving a B.S. in physics and chemistry from Antioch College in 1961, he joined Jim Watson's Biological laboratory at Harvard University where he received a doctorate in biophysics in 1967. Capecchi remained at Harvard, first as a junior fellow until 1969, followed by four years as Assistant Professor in the Department of Biochemistry at Harvard School of Medicine, until he left for the University of Utah in 1973.

Capecchi is a member of the National Academy of Sciences (1991) and the European Academy of Sciences (2002). His other numerous honors include the Bristol-Myers Squibb Award for Distinguished Achievement in Neuroscience Research (1992), Gairdner Foundation International Award for Achievements in Medical Science (1993), General Motors Corporation's Alfred P. Sloan Jr. Prize for Outstanding Basic Science Contributions to Cancer Research (1994), Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences (1996), the Franklin Medal for Advancing Our Knowledge of the Physical Sciences (1997), the University of Utah's Rosenblatt Prize for Excellence (1998), the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research (2001), the National Medal of Science (2001), the Wolf Prize in Medicine (2003), the Pezcoller Foundation-AACR (American Association for Cancer Research) International Award for Cancer Research (2003), and the March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology (2005).